GA Airplane rental in Iceland

Aerial of Sydri-Raudamelskulur
Aerial of Sydri-Raudamelskulur, en-route to the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

In 1783, a series of massive volcanic eruptions spewed 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the sky, blanketing Europe in a poisonous fog that lasted 8 devastating months.  Crops failed across the continent and Egypt suffered a famine that reduced its population by one-sixth. Thousands died from sulfurous acid poisoning. Across the Atlantic, even Benjamin Franklin wrote of the “constant fog over all Europe and a great part of North America.” The source of this catastrophic event? A small, sea-locked Nordic country: Iceland.

Aerial of Reykjavik
Aerial of Reykjavik, capital city of Iceland

Today, evidence of such violent eruptions exist everywhere in Iceland: moonscapes of mossy lava fields, beaches of volcanic black sand, massive pseudo-craters, strange ochre earth bubbling with heat and escaping sulfuric acids, and basalt columns rising like dwarfish fortresses from tortured ground. Half a year before our visit to this land of fire and ice, we contacted Flugskola Islands at Reykjavik airport. Booking an airplane rental came with the caveat that it could be cancelled at the last minute because training schedules for local students take precedence. Despite a miserably rainy summer, the god Freyr granted us sunshine and a 6000 foot ceiling the day we were scheduled to fly, and regardless of their caveat, the friendly folks at Flugskola procured an aero club 172 Cessna for us.

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Performing a walk-around on our Icelandic rental plane

They have a wonderfully sensible attitude about flying, Icelanders. There were no “prove-that-you-know-how-to-recover-from-a-stall” check-rides required.  We were pilots; therefore, we must know how to fly. An instructor did (thankfully) accompany us on a short flight to familiarize us with the procedures around Reykjavik airport (BIRK), but even then, Arnar shrugged at our incapacity to pronounce the mind-boggling names of the call-up points. “The controller will know you’re foreigners. He’ll work it out with you.”

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Route of our flight from Reykjavik to Stykkishólmur, a town situated in the western part of Iceland, in the northern part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

This pragmatism was evident everywhere.  We filed our outgoing and incoming flight plans with ground control in Reykjavik by simply telling the controller where we were going, when we expected to arrive at our destination, and how many passengers accompanied the pilot. Even in commercial aviation, this pragmatism is the norm.  Days earlier, for a flight with Air Iceland on a Bombardier Q400, “going through security” simply meant walking into a cafe-serviced waiting area adjacent to the check-in counter.  No special doors to go through, no “shoes off, belts off, all-liquids-in-plastic-bags” line-ups, no conveyor-belts of x-ray machines for our hand-luggage, no pat-downs or testing of our hands for explosives residue.  We utterly stymied the check-in clerk by asking if we might bring a couple of our own soda bottles “through security”.

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Alas, this wee airport terminal was locked up and,upon peering through the windows, looked utterly abandoned

The whole country of Iceland is detailed on one aeronautical chart with a standard 1:500000 VNC scale, so it’s impossible to unfold the map to full size in the cockpit. Armed with said map, we started the engine and off we went to the run-up area, where the controller had a long line-up of GA planes waiting while he meticulously handled one transmission at a time, at a pace reminiscent of the sloth in Disney’s Zootopia movie. Our destination was Stykkisholmur, a picturesque harbor town on the Snaefellsnes peninsula that had been cloaked in drizzle when we’d driven by it four days earlier.

aerial of snorrastadir
Aerial of Snorrastadir, sheep farm and tourist destination for horse-riding, situated alongside the river  Kaldá

Each airplane in Iceland has its own permanent transponder code (there isn’t enough air traffic to warrant otherwise), and other than while in the airspace of certain airports and a handful of locales, the whole country shares one frequency (118.10).  Our route took us northwest across Kallafjordur, Hvalfjordur, and Borgarfjordur, (try to understand those words through your headset), then over the pastoral fields of the Myrar region.  We stayed within gliding distance of road 54 while over Eldborgarhraun, the lunar-like lava fields we’d driven through days before. 

Aerial of Eldborg
Aerial of Eldborg, a volcano that is 100m above sea level and 60m deep from top to bottom.

There’s no surviving a forced landing on such terrain, save to put down on the road. Off to our left, at the far tip of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, the massive glacier on which Jules Vern based his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth coyly hid under a mantle of cloud, revealing just a glimpse of brilliant white skirt. The colors of moss, lichens, and dramatically red craters passing beneath our plane, combined with stunning gorges and waterfalls, made for a memorable flight. The cost for 2.9 on the Hobbs in Iceland?  A cool $1,060 Canadian! This was the regular aviation price, we learned. How on earth do those Icelandic student pilots afford it?

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View of Reykjavik airport, with cranes at the end of a runway recently (and permanently) closed to accommodate the construction of a hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scooter rental, La Palma, Canary Islands

Lush banana plantations waving in warm sea breezes, the sharp fragrance of eucalyptus in the hot sun, the bone-shuddering cold of the windy, winding, cloud-covered mountains… exploring the gorgeous volcanic island of La Palma by moto is a wonderful feast for the senses.

Coastal sea caves
Coastal views

Stretching over 706 square kilometres and reaching up to 2,426 metres above sea level, La Palma lies in the northwest of the Canary Islands. Scooter rental for 3 days cost us 35 Euros per day (the longer you rent it for, the cheaper the price per day).  We rented from a little blue and white shop located right at the entrance to the port in Santa Cruz de la Palma, within walking distance from the main tourist information centre, at the very southern end of Avenida Maritima: Smily Bike rental  (they rent mainly bicycles, but have a few scooters, too).

Iglesia del Salvador
Iglesia del Salvador, Santa Cruz de la Palma

The scooter’s storage/carrying case behind the passenger seat, plus the storage space under the seat, was plenty of room for two towels, bathing suits, snacks, water bottles, and spare clothes, most of which we ended up wearing in layers due to the wind chill factor when up in the hills, away from the warm sea-level breezes.  In fact, that brings me to Tip #1….

Cobbled streets
The cobbled streets of the old centre of Santa Cruz de la Palma

Tip #1–Dress Warmly! Yes, there are blue skies and hot sunshine and warm breezes at sea level when you pick up your moto in Santa Cruz, but as soon as you start climbing into the 2000 foot range, (immediately upon heading north or west from Santa Cruz) it is shockingly cold.  Teeth chatteringly, get-me-into-a winter-coat, cold.  I can’t emphasize this enough. Hoodies, sweaters, pants, jackets… all of these are required for travelling the island by scooter.

What NOT to wear-it's cold in those mountains
We  found ourselves frantically pulling over and layering up not ten minutes into our adventure because of the shocking cold due to wind-chill and elevation.

Tip #2–Make a plan before you hop on and roar off.  There are a surprising amount of stops en-route, and because signage is sparse and all in Spanish, it’s easy to zoom by something of interest.  It was an eye-opener realizing how few people speak English on this little island.  German, yes.  French, un petit peu.  English?  Rare. (For instance, we communicated with our friendly airbnb host solely through Google translate and hand gestures).  Because the island is small, there is the illusion one can zip around it quickly–but it is a mountainous, winding-route island, which one needs to take into account when travelling on a 125cc scooter. Maps are available for free at the information centre as you leave the airport, and again at the tourist centre in town.

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The natural sea-water pools at Charco Azul

 

Tip #3–Plan ahead where you’re going to park for the night, if home-base is in the centre of Santa Cruz de la Palma.  Steep, narrow, cobbled streets mean parking spaces are severely limited.  After business hours each evening, when parking-time becomes unlimited and free until morning, it is quite an experience being in the local traffic as cars zip furiously into any and all available spots on the flat Avenida Maritima.

Mirador Jardín de Las Hespérides
Mirador Jardin de Las Hesperides, route LP-1 north of Santa Cruz–In Greek mythology, the Hesperides are the nymphs of evening and golden light of sunsets, and they tended a blissful garden where extraordinary golden apples grew, a garden purportedly located somewhere in the Oceanus, at the far western edge of the world….

Rather than try squeeze our scooter between cars on a precipitous cobbled slope, we parked our scooter the first night on the sidewalk corner of Avenida El Puente and Avenida Maritima, where several locals were parking their motorbikes and scooters for the night, and we then walked the short distance to our airbnb, Casa Colonial (Buenavista), a fantastic old colonial house right near the central Plaza Espana, with a stunning 4-window view and private terrace and a wonderful  Spanish-speaking-only host.

the challenge of finding parking spots
The second and third night, we discreetly tucked our moto into a corner on the flat upper level of a nearby plaza.

Why go by scooter instead of by car?  It’s maybe a little cheaper: we used, on average, less than 5 Euros of fuel a day. But the real reason is the sheer joy of zipping along, being a part of the sea-breezes, scents and sights, instead of watching it all flash by your window in the mundane comfort of your car.Caves and canyons en-routeBlue hues of Charco AzulCobbled walkway, Charco AzulSan Andres

Driving Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula in July

On DAY TWO of our July road trip in Iceland, we saw: Bjarnarfoss waterfall, Vatnshellir Cave Tour, Djúpalónssandur Black Sand Beach & Gatklettur (Arch Rock), Saxholar Crater, Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss, Hvammsfjordur, Erpsstadir farm, and Saeberg HI hostel.

Bjarnarfoss
Bjarnarfoss, as seen from route 54

 8:20am–On the road!  We woke up to thick mist and light rain, cooked eggs & toast in our rented cabin at Tradir Guesthouse, loaded everything into the car, and started driving west along route 54 on the Snaefellsnes Penninsula. It was a 15 minute drive to our first stop, Bjarnarfoss waterfall.

Tradir Guesthouse
The cabin we rented at Tradir Guesthouse was private, serene, & perfect! (shower, kitchen included)

8:35am–Bjarnarfoss waterfall—Bear Falls is right by road 54, where the main road splits to Fróðaárheiði leading to Ólafsvík in the northern part and to Búðir and Arnarstapi on the south shore of the peninsula; there’s a large, gravel parking spot. Bjarnarfoss was deserted & peaceful at that early hour & we were the only ones present in the drizzle. Bjarnarfoss trail

Captivated by the falls, we walked up the paths and about the picturesque cascades of water and groves of small trees & bush while birds wheeled and called overhead. Picnic tables & the general elevation of the falls gave every indication that on a day that was not fog-soaked, the view of the surrounding farmland and sea would be splendid.

We’d next drove about 20 minutes west along route 574 to Lóndrangar Viewpoint, where we briefly stopped to snap a soggy photo and enjoy Iceland’s special summer dampness before proceeding for three minutes’ drive to Vatnshellir.

Ghost of Lóndrangar
Lóndrangar

9:50am–Vatnshellir Cave Tour—This 8000 year old lava tube is located about 25 minutes west of Bjarnarfoss, just before the junction of route 54 & 574.  On the day we visited, the easy 45 minute spelunking tour had drawn a crowd of 17 folks.Spiral stairs into Vatnshellir By the 10am start-time, the wind was heavily gusting, with droves of drizzle attacking us aslant. We were relieved to descend the subterranean, spiral staircase to explore the ancient lava tube & get out of the weather!Weird lava formations inside Vatnshellir The porous volcanic rock of the cave means there are absolutely no echoes whatsoever… a rather uncanny experience. We’d booked the tour in advance, which proved necessary; drop-ins were turned away, due to the popularity of the tour. Descending into VatnshellirAs our group exited Vatnshellir, the next tour was about to begin–with an astonishingly large crush of people.  From Vatnshellir, it was then about 6 minutes’ drive west along route 574 to Djúpalónssandur.

11:15am–Djúpalónssandur Black Sand Beach & Gatklettur—The amazing sea stacks at Djúpalón resemble an elf church and a kerling, or troll woman, but when we visited, they were hidden behind heavy cloaks of fog, with only dark shadows suggesting their existence. Chunks of twisted metal scattered across the black volcanic sand beach from the tragic 1948 wreck of the English trawler Eding, add to the sombre atmosphere created by Svörtulón or the Black Lagoon, just behind the beach. 

Eerie Black Lagoon at Djupalon
Svörtulón or the Black Lagoon

The Aflraunasteinar – Steinatök or lifting-stones, on the “black pearl” beach were apparently used to measure the strength of fishermen in Iceland, centuries ago– we didn’t attempt to lift them!

Aflraunasteinar - Steinatök or lifting-stones. They were used to measure the strength of fishermen in Iceland
Aflraunasteinar – Steinatök or lifting-stones

The rock formations on the trail to the beach include Gatklettur, Rock Arch. If not for the combination of gusting icy wind & rain, we could have easily spent upwards of 40 minutes here.

 

From Djupalon, it was then about 12minutes driving west along 574 to Saxholar Crater.

12:10pm– Saxholar Crater—We ate a pre-packed lunch in the car at the base of the crater, in the red-gravel parking lot which is visible from the road, and waited for the rain & wind to die down.  The 15 minute staircase-climb up the amazingly red crater must surely on a clear day provide a stunning view of the surroundings, but all we could see was fog-soup. Staring into the bowl of the crater was a little anticlimactic after the suspense-building climb… but still worth the effort.Saxholar crater stairs Plan to spend about 30 minutes here (or slightly more, if you’re having a picnic lunch in the car!) We then drove about 40 minutes east along route 574 & 54 to Kirkjufell.

1:10pm–Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss –Here, the weather cleared up, and we gleefully spent ample time taking far too many photos of this iconic, most photographed-in-the-world waterfall and mountain, just because we could take photos since the fog was gone! Kirkjufell and KirkjufellsfossView of Kirkjufellsfoss from the foot of the falls

We then continued east along the now-dirt route 54, having circumnavigated the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  The road was in great shape for a dirt road and was easy to drive in our 2wheel drive car. From Kirkjufellsfoss, it took us about 1 hour 40 minutes to reach our next destination, Erpsstadir, but the drive along the fjord of Hvammsfjordur with its many tiny islands, flanked by green farmland that was in turn dotted with red-roofed white farmhouses, made for a very pretty drive.

Beautiful view of Hvammsfjordur from route 54
Bucolic Hvammsfjordur

When we reached the T-intersection for route 60, we turned right and continued on to Erpsstadir.

4pm–Erpsstadir—This roadside dairy farm on route 60 (closes at 5pm) is the perfect spot to stretch the legs & sample some local ice-cream.  David tried a generous scoop of ice-cream made from fresh Icelandic blueberries, which wasn’t gaggingly sweet like the corn-syrup-dense  ice-creams that plague North America. I debated between a dandelion ice-cream and a small tub of thick skyr with rhubarb syrup and chose the skyr, which was thick and tart; the sweet rhubarb syrup complimented it perfectly.

Pet lamb roaming around Erpsstadir
A pet lamb wandering around Erpsstadir

Then it was a 1 hour 10 minute drive down route 60 between impressive cliffs riven with tumbling waterfalls, to route 1, where we headed north to Saeberg HI, located on Rejkjaskolavegur Road.

Rejkjaskolavegur Road
Rejkjaskolavegur Road

6pm:   Saeberg HI hostel– Sæberg/Farfuglaheimili HI Hostel, Reykjaskólavegur, 500 Stað. We checked into our tiny private cabin by the sea, where we cooked up a veggie stew in the quaint little kitchen and ate by the window while watching a flock of ducks & ducklings bob about the shore.  We thought we might check out the hot tubs after dinner… but the icy rain and wind made us decide otherwise. Overall, the weather hadn’t dampened our spirits in the least: even without blue skies and views of glaciers, there was so much to see, do, & photograph that we had enjoyed a splendid day.Our tiny cabin at Saeberg HostelInside the quaint cabin

TIPS:

For Vatnshellir Cave Tour, go first thing in the a.m., before the rush, and pre-book. Dress warmly; the cave is very cold, year round.

For booking a private cabin at Saeberg Hostel (great for self-caterers & those who prefer a private shower/toilet) you have to book at least 5 months ahead. Same for Tradir Guesthouse!

For Snaefellsnes Peninsula, there are few grocery opportunities for self-caterers.  When you leave Reykjavik, stock up in the grocery stores at Borgarnes before continuing on.

For our 6 day itinerary, click here.

Details about Day One, click here.

Bicycle rental in Celebration, Orlando Florida

With the crowds, giddy rides, and dizzying blasts of music, a break from Disneyland during a vacation in Orlando is not only desired, but for some of us, utterly necessary.  On one such day, we chose to swim with manatees (see my blog here).  More boardwalksOn another day, instead of just sitting pool-side at the hotel, a visit to Disney’s nearby idyllic town of Celebration offered over 10 miles of scenic bike trails through shady boardwalks, alongside picturesque lakes, and through peaceful, postcard-pretty neighbourhoods that are almost traffic-free. Celebration Town Centre from across the lakeLocated about 10 minutes away from Disneyland (4.3 miles) along West Osceola Parkway, the town of Celebration is a picturesque planned community located alongside Lake Rianhard. Boasting gift shops, ice-cream parlours, and lakeside cafes, it’s a quiet haven for time away from Mickey Mouse madness.
Lakeside cycle path

Cycling alongside Lake Evalyn

We rented bicycles from Kissimmee Bike Rentals,  located in the parking lot beside the striking Bohemian Hotel.  All bicycle rentals come with a trail map (see below) and a bottle of ice-cold water, and the rental charge is darn-right cheap… which is a nice break from Disneyland’s mortgage-your-house prices. 

Bohemian Hotel
The Bohemian Hotel

Once upon our wheeled steeds, we meandered through Celebration along the network of trails, with stops for photos and ice-cream. We saw sunbathing alligators alongside several of the lakes en-route, as well as herons, snakes, turtles and, first thing in the morning, two deer and a fawn nimbly picking their way through a grove. Because there are so many trails, you can make your bicycle route as long or as short as you wish.  Shady green boardwalksOur ride also took us through quiet residential villages that looked so American with their verandas, flower-boxes, and Adirondack chairs, it seemed as if we were on a movie set.

After our ride, we ate at the lakeside Avocado Mexican Grill, a short walk from the bicycle rental stall, which had a menu that suited not only the teen and the carnivore, but the vegetarian as well. celebration-florida-trail-list