Exploring The Well Kept Secrets Of Laugarvatn
I’m huddled over the steering wheel peering out from behind rapidly jerking windshield wipers as sprays of rain lash out across the glass. The car bounces up and down over the drenched crags of Þingvellir National Park. All of a sudden, the clouds clear and I see the sun break out and shine over Þingvallavatn lake while the clouds majestically roll over the mountains in the distance. The view is so gorgeous I have to shake my head like a horse shooing flies off its face to get myself to concentrate back on the road. Leave it to Iceland to be distractingly beautiful even on the most bitter of days.
Arriving in Laugarvatn, I turn down the town’s quaint main road and immediately see the large green roof of Heraðskólinn Hostel. I warm up with some coffee in the giant cafeteria area of the hostel with its managing director Sverrir Stein Sverrisson. He tells me that the seven-gabled building has been Laugarvatn’s most prominent landmark since 1928. The building was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson—Iceland’s most famous architect whose name I always forget even though I should really remember the man who built Hallgrímskirka in Reykjavík—and Guðjón’s engraved drawing desk is hidden away behind the hostel reception area.
As the name Heraðskólinn suggests to those somewhat familiar with Icelandic, the building was a boarding school for decades, and was one of the largest and most successful learning centres in Iceland before the education world shifted towards Reykjavík and big city life. Sverrir points out that all of the chairs in the cafeteria were handmade by the students that came to study here, a rite of passage that each student went through to study at the school. Iceland’s modern literary icon Halldór Laxness was one of those students and his typewriter with funky Icelandic characters remains on display.
Sverrir gives me a tour of the rest of the building, showing me into my room upstairs, the lounge area in the basement and the giant gym room where Heraðskólinn’s resident yoga master gives lessons and reminisces about life in Cambodia and spending three months without wearing shoes. After a lovely dinner with Sverrir’s family and watching a football match with some cold beer, I call it a night so that I can rest up for tomorrow.
Into The Wilderness
I rise early the next morning and find the sun shining brightly on the glittering lake. Taking advantage of the nice weather, I hike up Laugarvatnsfjall mountain to get an aerial view of the town. Passing by several wacky workout signposts on the trail nearest the road, I eventually make my way up through the snow-covered trees (trees in Iceland?! Gasp!) and onto the bare side of the little mountain. It’s a short, if slightly steep, hike up to the summit with amazing view over Laugarvatn and the countryside surrounding it.
Reaching the bottom of the mountain I hop back in the car for a quick drive over to Efsti-Dalur, a family owned dairy and cattle farm. The farm owns about 50 horses, 42 milk cows and more than 100 cattle. The upstairs restaurant and bar area is the perfect place for a quick lunch, though it’s a bit disconcerting eating home raised beef stew while cows stare up at me with their big brown eyes from below. Luckily, the handmade ice cream and cream-skyr comes without a side of guilt, and are probably just the most delicious things in the entire world. Seriously, I will gladly give up oxygen if instead I could just taste that skyr every moment of the short, sad, oxygen-deficient few minutes that would define the rest of my life.
I get back on the road for a quick drive over the river beyond Efsti-Dalur and park the car by the side of the bridge. After being thoroughly inspected by several stumpy Icelandic horses—which decide I’m not worth their attention once they realise I don’t have any food—I make my way up a trail that runs parallel the river. Although I lose the trail a few times and have to double back, I eventually reach Brúarfoss waterfall, where clear blue water froths and foams. The roar of the falls fills my head, strengthened by the isolation that comes from exploring secret gems, hiding just out of plain sight.
Smoke And Sulphur
I drive back to the hostel and change out of my now lovingly mud-covered hiking gear so that I can continue to explore the more civilised parts of Laugarvatn. I head over to Reykhúsið Útey, a fish smokery just across the lake where visitors can buy fresh and smoked fish. After donning a clear plastic apron and a hair net I’m allowed inside to check out the fish racks and the smoke room. Elsa Pétursdóttir, the friendly woman who gives me a tour of the smokehouse, tells me that they have been churning out fish for the past 20 years, and that one of Útey’s three flavours is created the “traditional Icelandic way,” meaning the fish is smoked by burning sheep manure. I happened to visit at the perfect time since they had just put out the first net of the season earlier that day.
After thanking the welcoming people at Reykhúsið Útey and making my way back to Laugarvatn, I have the growing suspicion that the smoky smell of a bonfire has dug deep into my clothes, skin and hair. Hoping to rinse the smell of fire out of my body, I walk down to Laugarvatn Fontana Spa, stopping for a quick peek at the tranquil steamy shrine next to it. It looks like a sort of earthen mound garden with a creek running through it and is supposedly the place where the members of the Althingi went to be baptised after converting to Christianity in 1,000 AD.
After a quick shower—am I really the only one that finds those signs explaining exactly where you need to wash yourself at all the swimming pools hilarious?— I gently lower myself into one of the more mild hot pools, and admire how the steam rolls off my arms and shoulders as if it is carrying all my aches and worries away. The pools are somewhat eye level with the surface of the lake and I’m able to watch birds flying over it, off into the distance, a soothing and peaceful sight that seems to linger behind my eyelids, a scene imprinted on my mind that I revisit long into the night.