Editor’s note: From July 3-17, 2011, 36 friends joined Rosalind and Einar Vigfusson to travel by bus around Iceland’s coastal regions.
One of the friends was Doris Benson and she and Rosalind joined forces to tell their story.
Doris Benson: As all visitors to Iceland, we enjoyed the rugged beauty of the lava fields, the snow-capped mountains and numerous waterfalls. But the lasting memory will be meeting relatives and connecting with ancestral homesteads.
Rosalind: Einar and I have been to Iceland many times. This was to be my 12th trip and Einar’s 10th. Over the years our friends have heard us talk...and talk... and talk some more about Iceland and decided they would like to see it for themselves. I had thought a group of six people would be good – and then it grew to include other friends – and sisters and brothers and cousins of those friends – and friends of those friends until we numbered 38 people in all. We had met everyone but six of the travellers before we embarked on the trip. We had several people on a waiting list as well. I began to work on the trip last November 2010, when I booked the group fare with Iceland Express. I served as unofficial guide – deciding where to stay, where to go. Our bus driver for the second half of our tour was Kent Björnson and he was most helpful as well.
Doris: Rosalind and Einar prepared family histories for the 24 passengers with Icelandic roots and located connecting farms for all. As we followed the circle road around Iceland it was exciting to stop at the homesteads and feel drawn to the land where great-grandparents and other ancestors had left to embark on the voyage that brought them to North America. Photos were taken with farm signposts, others standing beside gravestones in family plots and in some cases, with family members who still farmed the land. Emotions ran high as we celebrated our roots and shared in those of our fellow travellers.
Rosalind: I began working on the family tree information last January. The family trees included going back to ancestors that came from Iceland and the farms they came from. It is a very time consuming process, but very rewarding when you can witness for yourself, the joy and connectiveness that people feel when standing on the same ground as their forebears. The research time involved depends on the availability of historical and genealogical information. The local history books were all a wealth of information. I make special mention of Nelson Gerrard’s Icelandic River Saga. His meticulous family history research work is a treasure. I also made each person a copy of an Iceland map and included where in Iceland these farms were located.
Doris: We did it all: from Lummukaffi in a refitted sheep barn to a performance in Harpa, the elegant new concert house in Reykjavík; from searching for the elusive reindeer near Mount Snæfell, to standing in awe watching thousands of puffins in their nesting grounds at Borgarfjörður Eystri; from the varying lava fields between Mývatn and Egilstaðir to Petra’s amazing stone collection at Stoðvarfjörður; from the horse farm at Flugumýri to the turf houses at Glaumbær; from Valgeir’s royal welcome in Hofsós to a spellbinding tour of the Skógar Museum by 90-year-old Thordur Tomasson; from guided tours at Reykhólt and Hólar to the mega Karahnjúkar Hydro project; from
ATVing across a mountaintop on a 45-person bus to a walk in downtown Reykjavík; from admiring the ever-present lupins to the manicured botanical garden in Akureyri; from pylsas to skyr to fish soups and many other fish recipes that fishers in Manitoba have never heard about.
Rosalind: We wanted to show these people the Iceland that we have come to know. The countryside with its amazing scenery and the wonderfully warm and hospitable people that we know and love. For example one of my cousins treated everyone to a free lunch in Akureyri and offered their home as a resting place should anyone need to avail themselves of that. That same evening another one of my cousins invited everyone in the group to a barbecued roast of lamb with all the trimmings – including Brennivín and Hákarl followed by a singalong evening. Incredible sincere friendship and hospitality. Our group stayed in Hofsós for two nights and were greeted at the entrance to the town by an Icelandic horse escort, one rider carrying the Icelandic flag and the other, the Canadian flag. Valgeir Thorvaldsson boarded the bus and welcomed everyone to Hofsós and to the Emigration Museum. We had a glass of wine and appetizers on arrival, followed by a wonderful dinner and a concert. The Arnason family tour arrived just prior to us and there were over 100 North Americans at Hofsós that night, most were of Icelandic descent. Pretty amazing.
Doris: After leaving Akureyri and arriving in Egilstaðir, we heard that the volcano, Katla, was rumbling and threatening to erupt. Located beneath a glacier, Katla’s activity caused a flash flood which had destroyed a bridge on the only accessible road along the southern coast. For two days we toured the Egilstaðir area and waited to hear whether we could make the crossing over the glacial river or if we would have to turn around and retrace our steps. When we received the go-ahead to continue on, we were especially happy for Gunnthora Gisladóttir who was anxious to visit Djúpivogur and to see in the distance the island of Papey, her childhood home, and also to visit her elderly brother in Höfn. The river crossing went well considering the misty rain and the number of people and vehicles needing to be tendered across. Because our bus was too large to ferry across, we transferred all our luggage to another bus on the opposite side of the river. A bulldozer went back and forth clearing a path for the flatbed trucks and rescue-ferry (resembling a tundra buggy) that moved about a mile from riverbank to riverbank. It was amazing to see how organized and how tirelessly volunteers worked to sustain the flow of traffic.All in all, the trip was full of fun and adventures. We learned much about a land that is very different to ours. Most meaningful though, is the emotional pull we feel toward the homeland our people left behind–until you’ve felt the strong tug to your roots you can’t imagine how special it truly is.
Rosalind: Tips for anyone else considering a group trip to Iceland? Book your trip early. A group fare can be a group of 10 or more people. There is no tipping in Iceland, except for the bus drivers. Iceland is a “hot” travel destination and the numbers of tourists are increasing every year. Probably increasing faster than they can build accommodations. We stayed mostly in rural settings and so our lodgings were not four Star accommodations. They were clean and safe but there were not bathrooms in each room in most places. We only hope that all of us, as Canadians of Icelandic descent can reciprocate and receive all visitors from Iceland with the same selfless generosity.