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Icelandic Trifecta

We’re making our way to Corsica through July. First stop: Iceland.

I’m usually so clear about where to go and what to see when we travel. Not so with our visit to the Land of Fire and Ice. There are so many options, many of them far flung, and I’m completely baffled. I just don’t know where to start.

To narrow our choices, we focus on the number three. Three days to:

  • drive the Golden Circle (including three stops);
  • hike above the Skógafoss waterfall (divided into three legs);
  • and, visit the Blue Lagoon (for three activities).

Iceland suffers frequent gloomy weather but the sun — the midnight sun — which stays up for twenty-three hours, welcomes us. At eleven at night, after an extended sunset, it slips below the horizon and hangs there, allowing an hour or so of dusk, until rising once again. “You’re very lucky,” several told us. “These are the most beautiful days of summer so far.”

Settling into Reykjavik, the country’s capital, we have first impressions:

  • There are few trees but hitchhikers abound (I can’t remember the last time I saw one in the US).
  • Most buildings look like they were built yesterday. Many, especially residences, are sheathed in corrugated steel. Because it withstands the harsh climate and is plentiful and cheap, Icelanders use it like New Englanders use wood shingles. I find the houses charming, especially those of the white-trimmed tomato red and forest green variety.
  • Most in the service industry are young. Very young. Under 25 young.
  • The bright purple and white lupines that line roads and blankets meadows are reminiscent of Provence’s lavender fields.
  • The island is no bargain. You pay dearly for its treasure: one and a half to two times US prices. Our simple airport hotel is $147, and our Reykjavik hostel (called a guesthouse in Iceland) is $150 a night. It’s clean, the shared bathroom is across the hall, the staff is friendly and the breakfast is hardy. But still, it’s pricey for basic lodging.
  1. The Golden Circle

On day one, we drive the Golden Circle to see its three main sights. It loops 300 kilometers from Reykjavík into central Iceland, and is a great alternative to driving the island’s perimeter — a full week’s endeavor. We’re alarmed by sheep grazing dangerously close to the road and pass field after field of sturdy Icelandic horses, many pony-sized, with adorable faces, thick, mop top bangs and long, shaggy manes. In a flash, I’m Arya in Game of Thrones (some of which is filmed here), mounting her trusty steed, taking off into deep, verdant waterfall-lined valleys.

Our first stop is Þingvellir national park, where Iceland’s Parliament of chieftains first met in 930 AD. It’s also where the North American and Eurasian continental plates meet. As they slowly drift apart, they’ve created the Silfra fissure, the only place in the world where you can see such a crack in the earth above sea level.

Our next stop is Haukadalur, haunting geothermal grounds with steam rising from vents in mud pools. Geysir, the original and now dormant geyser, gave its the name to all those that followed. The Strokkur spout is still active and shoots steam and boiling water one hundred feet high, erupting every six minutes or so amid the smell of rotten eggs.

Stop three on the Golden Circle is the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall. The wide, powerful Hvítá river turns a corner and crashes over cliffs into a ravine, creating Iceland’s answer to Niagara Falls. The roaring cascade of water generates thick mist and rainbows a-plenty.

  1. The Hike

Day two has us up at 5:30 am (I was going to say dawn, but that would have been five hours earlier) for the two-hour drive to the Fimmvörduháls (five cairn trail) above Skogar on the southern coast. We continue the theme of threes with the trek section names: Waterfall Way, The Ashtray, and Godaland.

Let’s cut to the chase: it’s the most beautiful day hike we’ve ever done.

waterfall hikeWe take the steep stairs alongside Skógafoss, an elegant two hundred foot waterfall, follow the river that feeds twenty-two powerful chutes whose elevations attest to our ascent. We hike at a brisk pace, the GR20 and Corsica in mind. It’s a steady climb with occasional steep rises but there is one scary scramble where the path becomes a tight ledge above a ravine. It’s tough to enjoy the cascade thundering across the way as we side step along. We hear the successive falls before we see them — the powerful roar of water falling off a cliff — and then feel the mist. The lush chasm of each fall looks positively tropical; we could easily be in Hawaii or Tahiti. We leave the waterfalls behind once we cross the rickety bridge over the Skóga river. Part two of the hike stretches before us: the desolate, cratered moonscape of the Ashtray. We’re buffeted by fierce winds as we approach the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers and the still steaming, red-hued volcano that erupted in 2010. After four hours to climb 2,400 feet, we decide to turn around. Part three of the hike, called Godaland, and the descent into “fairytale” Pórsmörk will certainly bring us back to Iceland. On our return, we’ll be sure to bring our tent and sleeping bags so we can do the hike to the end.

  1. The Blue Lagoon

Joe bathrobeWe save our trip to the Blue Lagoon for our third and final day. We stick to a three-pronged plan: soak sore hiking muscles in its warm, milky blue waters; enjoy facial masks; and, have lunch at the Lava restaurant. It’s an expensive outing in line with the costs of the rest of the country. We pre-book the package that included a bathrobe, flip-flops, a drink, unlimited facial masks, and a reservation at the restaurant with a glass of champagne. I fear the attraction will be kitschy but it’s far from it. Yes, we join a United Nations of tourists, from grandparents to babies in water wings, but it’s a very nice spa – beautifully designed, well organized and spotless. It’s not overly crowded since they limit the number of visitors. The levels of silica in the geothermal water can turn hair to straw, especially blonds like us, so we layer on conditioner in the locker rooms.

The lagoon is ethereal with steam rising from one hundred degree pools and visitors drifting through the water, faces masked in silica mud and algae cream. We soak for two hours, sip drinks at the swim-up bar, and repeatedly slather our faces with masks. (I know several who would pay to see my typically buttoned-up Joe sport a facial treatment!) Hair conditioned, skin tightened and fingertips like prunes, we retreat to the chic Lava restaurant for lunch. Delicious food, sophisticated decor, friendly service, and champagne. All enjoyed in our fluffy white bathrobes. What’s not to love?

Who gets sunburned in Iceland? Apparently, we do, after our hike and a day at the Blue Lagoon. Our badges of honor evident on our faces, we continue on to Paris.

 

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2016 in baby boomer, GR20, hiking, Travel, turning 60

 

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Turning 60

Turning 60

Long ago I learned that a trip on the horizon keeps me happy. If there are no definite travel plans, no future dates inked on my calendar, I’m blue, untethered, uneasy. Buying guidebooks, planning an itinerary, and mapping out details give me a high of the healthiest kind. The prospect of getting away, the break from routine, the novel—it all keeps me connected and curiously, sane.

So while most people celebrate their sixtieth birthday with a dinner, cruise or weekend at a spa, the prospect of turning sixty, within eleven days of each other, made my husband Joe and me restless and hungry for adventure. We wanted to challenge what it means to be sixty years old and so we opted for a trip to Corsica, to hike what is considered Europe’s toughest long distance footpath.

Turning sixty is an anniversary some find terrifying. For us, it meant retirement, the end of our workaday lives and the beginning of journeys curbed only by our wallets and the bounds of our bodies. It also meant celebrating a high school romance that grew into thirty-five years of marriage. We were ready to mark milestones thirty-five and sixty, eager to begin the next phase of our life.

We envisioned our journey to Corsica for almost four years. The planning started while we backpacked through Europe on an adult gap year—our Senior Year Abroad—in 2012. That particular journey was thirty years in the making and required selling the house, the car, and most of our possessions, as well as quitting our jobs. This next step in our adventure progression required fewer leaps of faith since we both retired days before we left the US, and no longer had a house to sell.

What is the appeal of these outdoor challenges? It would be simple to say nature’s beauty, but in reality, it’s so much more. It’s the brisk morning air, the solitude, the sense of freedom and timelessness; it’s how our muscles ache, in a good way, at the end of a long day. Certainly we hike for the views, but it’s also for the chance to be alone with our thoughts, for the opportunity to meet interesting, like-minded people, for the photos, and yes, for the effort. Completing a particularly difficult hike goes a long way towards gratifying our competitive sides.

But the true allure of an extended trek to places inaccessible by vehicles and technology is what it does for our minds. It’s a detox during which we leave contemporary clutter behind. We think clearly, without distraction, about what’s most important, with no alarms, no deadlines, no beeps, no bells. We put one foot in front of the other and stress and anxiety wither as we share the same wild wonders together.

While we’re dedicated day walkers and have done multi-day stretches of hiking and camping in the Grand Canyon and Yosemite national parks, a two-week trek across difficult terrain will be a daunting physical challenge that sets a new, much higher, bar for us.

Friends considered tagging along, but one thing and then another got in their way, so off we’ve gone on our own. Just us, in hiking boots—two for the road, as usual—lugging brand new backpacks, a tent, sleeping bags and trekking poles, to tackle a one hundred and eighteen mile trail, the GR20, on a rugged island in the Mediterranean.

The Grande Randonnée (GR) hike number twenty bisects Corsica diagonally and follows its mountain spine, from the northwest to the southeast corner. It’s one of hundreds of GRs, meaning “big hikes,” in French. They crisscross Europe, primarily in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain. Although not well known in the US, if you ask a European hiker about challenging trails, The Twenty always comes up. In Corsican, its name is Fra li monti, “across the mountains.” Rocky terrain, scree-strewn granite slabs and steep inclines, some of which require chains to ascend, have earned the trail its reputation as arduous and relentless.

Trails are blazed with the distinctive mark of a white stripe above a red one and are maintained in France by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée. We’d hiked pieces of other GR footpaths, including rambles around the Hexagon and seventy-five miles of the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) through France, Italy and Switzerland, to circle the highest peak in Europe. The TMB was a difficult, sometimes grueling hike. But at the end of each day, bruised and battered, we had a hot restaurant meal, soft mattress and warm blanket waiting for us in a hotel. Granted, some of our overnight accommodations were simple, rustic hiker inns with showers and toilets down the hall, but there was a certain level of comfort we knew to expect. Not so with our Mediterranean adventure; we will be roughing it for two weeks.

We signed with British company, KE Adventure Travel, in large part because we couldn’t find a US-based outfitter that does the Twenty. Yes, we are hikers—but we’re not well-schooled in camping—so we’re going into the wilderness under the direction of a seasoned team that secures permits, reserves campsites and shelters and will be responsible for feeding us. And most important of all, we’ll be part of a group with a guide who ensures we don’t get lost.

Joe and I accumulate hikes like others collect fine wine. Thus, our trip planning always includes researching the best walks in the area. We hate to pass up a good trail, and just like our decision to go to Corsica, we often build an entire trip around a particular track.

Friends and family often ask, “Why Corsica?”

The birthplace of Napoleon is an island in the Mediterranean, one of the thirteen regions of France. It boasts delicious food, garrulous people, white sandy beaches and several top-notch boutique hotels. The island has been on our travel list for years and discovering the existence of the GR20 quickly bumped it to the top. The derring-do hiking tales of a retired British Army General we met on our European sabbatical sealed the deal. He raved about The Twenty and at the end of our conversation commanded, “You absolutely must do it.” The General was not a man to be ignored. Corsica was definitely in our future.

Over the course of a fortnight, we’ll camp, bunk in coed, dorm-style rustic réfuges on platforms in our sleeping bags, and on a few lucky, luxurious nights, stay in gîtes d’étape—small, private hostels with actual beds. Yes, the physical and mental challenges of the GR20 will be significantly greater than those of anything we’ve undertaken before. This outdoor escapade will test our 60 year-old hiking mettle, not to mention our thighs, and stretch the limits of our “senior” resolve.

Come along for the journey. Join us for The Twenty.

(More to follow…)

 

 

 

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