The wind broke around the hotel, whistling and howling as it forced its way into every little nook and cranny, splattering snow onto every surface it hit and rattling the windows.
“It always sounds worse than it is from inside,” said the host at Hotel Budir, an isolated boutique hotel nestled in a little crook of the knobbly finger of Iceland’s Snæfellsnes peninsula. I laughed. Icelanders are fond of displaying their prowess in the face of bitter conditions. It was an understatement to say it wasn’t sounding too hospitable outside and it most definitely hadn’t sounded any better from inside our compact car as we’d driven here earlier in the afternoon. But we hadn’t been laughing then.
That morning Stacker had bounced me awake. The day had dawned gloriously sunny, the first one to do so after a series of dull, drizzling days, and he was keen to get out and explore. We jumped in our rental car and headed for the western peninsula, hoping for beautiful views and to get a taste of Hotel Budir’s renowned fish soup for lunch.
The sun followed us out of Reykjavik, around the Kollafjörður bay, through the underwater Hvalfjörður Tunnel, over a bridge and northwards to the peninsula.
But as soon as we ventured out onto the peninsula things started looking frosty. We took a detour up a small icey road to see a wall of basalt columns at Gerðuberg and, almost as soon as we stepped out the car, the sun plunged behind a cloud and the air took on a sudden chill.
As we left and continued westwards on the narrow road hugging the southern side of the peninsula, we noticed light flurries of snow scurrying across the road, which was iced over except for two think strips that had been cleared down the center. In retrospect that should have been our cue to rethink our plan but instead we ploughed on, confident in our studded tyres.
The wind picked up and soon after it started getting foggy. Except what we thought was fog at first was in fact a steady stream of snow-laden wind. The road was lined with reflective posts and we slowly made our way from one post to the next. There was supposed to be stunning views of the volcanic mountain chain that marched down the center of the peninsula to our right but it was all completely obscured. We concentrated on the two clear black strips on the road, Stacker ready to make room for the occasional oncoming vehicles, mostly SUVs of monster truck proportions. We considered turning around but we were getting close to Hotel Budir and we had no idea what the conditions were like behind us by now.
The first of a series of glacial lakes appeared on our right. The wind had whipped them into a frenzy so what would normally have been perfectly flat, serene lakes resembled stormy seas. At one point the sea itself also came close to the road on the other side. It too was enraged. The waves barrelled up the shore and the wind pushed them back so that they twisted and water sprayed off their crests. I felt trapped between these formidable bodies of water and grateful for the bubble of safety the car provided us.
The lakes must have been swelled by the recent rains because as we approached one of them I was deeply unhappy at how the road passed by the very edge of it, without any barrier to protect us from a slip or accident. Stacker moved out of the cleared strips on the road and put one wheel on the ice at the edge of the road. His logic was that he wouldn’t have to swerve for an oncoming car at a time when making a mistake would send us over the lip and into the icy water. I, being on the right of the vehicle, watched the edge of the road like a hawk, my stomach tied up in knots.
A slip now would not be instantly fatal, but being forced to abandon the car would likely be disastrous and any kind of dunking would surely mean game over. I thought of the people who had sailed here and decided to populate this beautiful but hostile place and how they must have been resilient and fearless beyond measure.
Just as we finally passed the lake the blizzard tightened its hold on us and suddenly the world outside was nothing but shapeless white. We couldn’t see the bonnet of the car anymore, let alone the next post. Our fog lights were basically useless but if they were anything like our wing mirrors they had probably been plastered over with snow anyway.
We stopped dead in the road. With no emergency lane or side road to pull in to and nothing but ditches and rough lava fields on the side of the road, all we could do was stop and hope that anyone else on the road had stopped too. Whenever the snow broke long enough for us to see the stripes in the road we inched along, scanning for the next reflective post. I looked nervously at the GPS which was showing one more lake in front of us and then a little over 3km to the turnoff for Hotel Budir and mentally hugged the woman at ProCar who’d thrown it in for free. Without the little device we would have had no way of knowing where on the road we were.
A small red VW emerged out of the whiteness behind us and I suddenly felt a rush of relief. It was the first person we’d seen travelling in the same direction as us and I was happy to finally have a friend in the blizzard. We hadn’t even seen a building since a closed petrol station back before the first of the lakes when visibility had been a lot better, so this little bit of human contact made me feel less alone.
We crawled slowly through the whiteness in convoy, the VW behind us disappearing and reappearing as the blizzard swirled around us. When we saw a little bay on the side of the road – it was actually a side road but we couldn’t tell at the time – Stacker pulled over and let them take the lead. I felt a little surge of panic as they pulled around us and were briefly swallowed into the snow.
The GPS piped up to warn us of the left turn ahead but it was about ten minutes until we had apparently reached the turnoff. “Turn left,” said the robotic voice from the GPS. We looked to the left but we couldn’t see the other side of the road. The car icon on the screen drew level with the turnoff and finally the snow broke a little, enough for us to see a sign with the word ‘Budir’ on it. We turned quickly,a hoping there was no oncoming traffic, and caught sight of the red car leaving us to continue on the main road.
We still had just under two kilometers to go on this side road but, although it was a lot narrower, it seemed more sheltered than the main road and the air cleared rapidly as we approached Budir. From the moment we saw the outline of the hotel I started jittering as the adrenaline ebbed out of my body and was replaced with the excitement of making it to safety.
We piled into the lobby, laughing and breathlessly explaining to the host what we’d come through in order to have lunch here. He asked a few questions about the conditions, trying to discern if we were just soft tourists but eventually conceded that it must have been “a real skafrenningur,” using the Icelandic word for a ground blizzard when loose snow is whipped into the air by strong winds. He proceeded to tell us about his friend who drives an oil tanker in all kinds of weather and how his advice for blizzards was to accelerate to 90 mph so that the time during which you can’t see the road markers is reduced. I was pretty sure he was just messing with us but I shuddered at the thought of having met someone like that on the road.
We sat in the lobby and ordered a pair of fish soups and it was either the best fish soup ever made or our experience was heightened by the morning’s events – or both. We scooped up the warm creamy broth, the delicate pieces of fish and shellfish melting in the mouth and the occasional fish egg bursting under tooth. The lobby was surrounded by glass windows and an ornate telescope stood ready for guests to look out onto the scenery. We knew from our friends Drewstafa and Tecate who had recommended we come here that that on a good day you could see a waterfall in the mountains opposite but today both window and telescope were rendered useless.
I clutched a glass of wine in one hand and my seat in the other, resolved that noone was going to remove me from this safe place today. Emmanuel wasn’t drinking, still hoping for a break in the weather for our return journey and I knew I wouldn’t be able to properly relax until I could convince him that we should stay in the hotel. They still had rooms but I had visions of a coach-load of people arriving to seek refuge and taking all the rooms.
Finally, as it became clear we only had a few hours before darkness and no idea what the conditions were like along the length of the road, he agreed and we booked a room, bought a toothbrush and ordered some Icelandic stout. Of course during the next half hour the weather broke and as we sipped our drinks the view opened up around us, first the Atlantic coastline, then the mountains and, with the help of the telescope, a slender waterfall cascading down a distant peak. I begged Stacker that we should stay anyway, despite the improvement in the weather, but it turned out he was right – it would be another 46 hours before we’d make it out again.
Making the most of the brief sight of sun we went for a walk on the expanse of snow-covered lava fields behind the hotel. The lumpy, pockmarked terrain gave me the impression we were walking on a giant, hardened sponge. We were guided by the host’s energetic dog, Tara, who hurled herself into every hole and tunnel in the solidified lava. It was fun terrain and the path disappeared off well into the distance but we didn’t stray too far, fully aware now of how quickly the weather could turn.
Back in the hotel we warmed up with some some G&Ts by the log fire then sat down to a delicious dinner of tender Icelandic lamb steak with a jerusalem artichoke purée. Meanwhile the storm outside gathered strength again.
That night we tossed and turned, kept awake more by more than one kind of wind – the kind that was howling outside and the kind that cramped painfully in our guts. At first I thought I’d overindulged on the food and drink but then I remembered a quote I’d once read about jerusalem artichokes and in the morning I looked it up again:
“which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men.” – John Goodyer in Gerard’s Herbal, 1621.
We resolved never to eat the damn things again.
The following morning the host told us the weather had worsened up on the main road so we took advantage of the opportunity to catch up on sleep instead – there was no point in forcing it today if we’d judged it dangerous yesterday and we had nowhere special to be. We lazed around watching DVDs then took Tara for another walk, this time to the nearby beach. Earlier a Frenchman had come blustering into the lobby, red faced with cold and gripping an SLR containing three blurry shots of seals, inspiring us to go and take a look for ourselves.
The wind cut through my jeans like they didn’t exist as we tramped through snowdrifts down to the little secluded beach facing the choppy Atlantic ocean. “Woooo ooooo, Wooooo ooooo” we called out over the waves and Tara cocked her head, looking at us like we were crazy. It something my mum would do on beaches in Scotland. She says she can call to seals that way but I was convinced it was just another way to embarrass me, as parents do. Anyway, since we were alone we figured we’d give it a shot and, whether by coincidence or calling, Stacker suddenly caught sight of movement – a darker gray moving slickly in the icy-gray water. We renewed our calling and saw it again – a seal’s head bobbing in and out of the water, coming closer by intervals. It stopped in one place for a while and it felt like it was looking right at us, appraising us with it’s wet black eyes and then it was gone – we clearly hadn’t fooled it.
As we sought refuge in the hotel again, I acknowledged it had at least been worth the adventure to get out to this beautiful and isolated corner of the world and to see a seal for the first time. That evening though the blizzard gathered strength again and I began to wonder when we’d be able to get out. I got another fright as I was changing after a shower and heard a knocking on our second-floor window. Gingerly pulling the curtain aside I looked outside into the darkness and then jumped back as I saw something fly past the window. I looked again and laughed when I realised it was a cardboard box. The wind had liberated a number of them from wherever they’d been stored and was making them dance a bizarre dance, occasionally hurling one against the hotel with impressive force.
The storm blew itself out in the night and, keen for a change of clothing and to get back to work, we paid our monumental bill and hit the road. With all the meals, drinks and two nights in the hotel, the blizzard had cost us a fair wad of cash but we consoled ourselves with the fact that you can’t put a price on safety. We did however get a pleasant surprise at the rental car company. We had kept them informed of our plight and, upon returning the car a full two days late, they didn’t charge us anything extra.
Finally back in Reykjavik we had only one night’s respite from the weather. The blizzard had followed us home and hit the city during the following night. I opened our door, which had been plastered with ice, to a foot and a half of the kind of dry, pristine powder snow that skiers dream of. With the high winds there was a risk of flying debris in the city so the municipal police told everyone to stay at home and read a book. Luckily we’d managed to get some supplies in the brief interval between blizzards so were happy to oblige.
By the next day the storm had abated. I opened the door again to see the perfect snow blanket had picked up a dusting of coarse black soot. “It’s from Eyajafjokull,” came a voice from above. I looked up to see our neighbour clearing his balcony. “From the volcano,” he clarified.
I laughed. In Iceland you just never know what the sky is going to throw at you next.