Iceland

I’ve just got back from a short break in Iceland. What a fantastic country, with friendly people and a lovely Christmassy atmosphere.

We flew in on Tuesday and went straight to the Blue Lagoon – a geothermal bathing spa with waters full of minerals good the the skin. In the freezing temperatures of the Icelandic night, the pool was as warm as a hot bath. It was a great way to unwind after the stresses of getting to Heathrow (more than an hour of traffic delays) and the flight (held on the runway for 20 minutes while BA and American Airlines flights pushed in).

The hotel, the Leifur Ericsson, was right next to the famous Hallgrimkirkja, an ultra modern church named after the 17th Century religious poet Hallgrimur Petursson. Its size and prominence made finding our way back from anywhere in Reykjavik easy. When we arrived at the hotel, it was lit up against the night sky with the moon and Jupiter shining to one side of the spire.

Breakfast each morning included pickled herring and cucumber and the coffee appeared to have been concentrated but it certainly gave me a kick start to the mornings. I stuck with the toast and ham and boiled egg.

On Wednesday, we spent the morning walking around Reykjavik. For a large part of the time, it was dark as the sun didn’t rise until around 10.30am. The Christmas lights and candles in the shop windows made it a magical place and the snow and ice meant that it was never truly dark. We ended up walking along the sea front, past the grand Harpa concert hall, which was open and warm, a welcome break from the freezing temperatures outside.

In the afternoon, we went whale watching in the Faxafloi bay to the north of Reykjavik. Although the sea looked smooth it was deceptive and once out of the shelter of the harbour moles, some large waves made it hard to stand up. The trip lasted over 3 hours and the constant random motion of the boat made me feel queasy. It ws bitterly cold too and standing on the bow trying to spot whale blows and dolphin fins was an ordeal. In the end, for whatever reason, we saw no whales and only a few dolphins, who seemed to play around the boat and tease us by popping up all over the place.

In the evening, we went on a northern lights tour. The bus left at 9pm and we didn’t get back to the hotel until about 12.30 but the cloud was thick the whole time and we saw nothing of the sky, let alone auroae. The landscape, faintly visible in the glow as we passed through villages, was mysterious and inviting but the outside temperature was -9C and the stop we made was to have a coffee in a local service station.

On Thursday, we did the Golden Circle tour. We took a roughly circular route to visit a number of geological and historical sites to the north and east of Reykjavik. First on the list was Kerio, an extinct volcanic crater. It last erupted 6,500 years ago and now a frozen lake sits at the bottom of it. From there we visited a wide, gushing waterfall just up the road. The water here was from the mountains and clear. After a few minutes in the cold wind for a photo stop, we set off for Geysir.

The Geysir geothermal area is the home to the one that gave all geysers their name – Geysir – which means ‘gusher’ in Icelandic. For hundreds of years Geysir has erupted regularly but in the last century, thanks to changes in the local geology it has become a rare gusher. In the last century, locals attempted to stimulate the geyser by throwing stones into it. It worked for a while but eventually the stones blocked the funnel up. Soap can induce a geyser, but these days it is left alone. Instead, Strokkur, its smaller neighbour, now attracts all the attention. As we walked past the bubbling pools it was an amazing sight to see all the steam rising from fissures in the ground. We struggled over thick ice to get to a good viewpoint for Strokkur and were rewarded a few minutes later with a massive spout preceded by a brilliant blue bubble of boiling water.

After food, we headed off to Gullfoss, a massive and spectacular waterfall on the Hvita river, white with the mineral deposits from a glacier further up the valley. When we arrived, a bitter wind was blowing along the river and even though were were a hundred yards away from the waterfalls, we were stung in the face by frozen water droplets. A large part of the waterfall was frozen solid. The wind was so cold that I was reluctant to head off down the path to the viewing platform nearer the waterfalls. For one thing, the spray would have soaked me and I would have frozen. I was happy where I was.

Our last stop of the day was at the Thingvellir national park. Thingvellir (the spelling is partly phonetic as I don’t have the correct character to replace ‘th’) is the site of the first Icelandic Parliament, held in 930AD when settlement of the island was complete. It was held there for tow weeks every summer until 1798 and in the 19th century, the parliament was moved to Reykjavik. The site is still important and used for key celebrations and gatherings. We walked through the area (it’s not clear exactly where the parliament gathered as any structures used were temporary for the two weeks only).

The area is also a rift valley between the American and European tectonic plates, which drift apart at the rate of about 15mm per year. The level of the land has dropped over the centuries and a large lake now occupies the bottom of the valley. Either side of the valley, the plates are marked by rock walls rising vertically. Within the valley, fissures hold pools of water. The area is an active earthquake zone too.

Back in Reykjavik, we enjoyed a lovely meal in a local restaurant before getting an early night. The pick up for the flight in the morning was at 5.50am.

The flight home was uneventful, as was the journey back by car.

Three days wasn’t enough to make the most of the country although it provided a fantastic taster and ensured that I will be going back as soon as I can.

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8 responses to “Iceland

  1. Gullfoss looks beautiful when frozen like that. It’s a shame about your Northern Lights tour, not sure what company you went with but they should have given you a free trip for another night if you didn’t see anything? I’m going whale watching next year for the first time. If you do ever go back, Husavik in the summer is generally much better for whale sightings than Reykjavik. It sounds like you had a wonderful time though!

    • We had the opportunity of another free tour but the evening was worse and we were flying at stupid o’clock the following morning. We weren’t there long enough to postpone again, nor to get to Husavik (which was our initial choice of whale watching venues).

      Never mind – it’s the excuse I need to go back again next year. Next time, we’ll go for longer in May, I think.

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