By Simon Brown
My first visit to Iceland was as a 16-year-old schoolboy on an Educational visit for GSE Geography and Geology. That was a long. long time ago! I recall that summer as one where Iceland experienced a heat wave of 75F, and we camped inland in huts with black-out shutters to block the midnight sun.
Mount Hekla volcano had recently erupted, and the new Island Surtsey had been formed out of the sea to become the youngest island in the world less than a decade earlier. The hot springs of Geysir exploded high in the light blue sky and the sparse green grass, small scattering of trees, and enormous lunar like ash plains formed the landscape which has stayed fresh in my mind for over 40 years.
So it was with excitement and anticipation that I boarded the Friday night plane from Heathrow in a party of 5 for a trip to the land of fire and ice, the land of contrasts, for a second visit, this time in February, in a phone app predicted Winter climate of -10 degrees C.
Our party was a family gathering to celebrate significant birthdays ranging from 25, to 60, with 30 and 40 in between. So a well-distributed age profile to enjoy what Iceland has to offer in 2019.
The family Brown group included daughter Ellen and son Danny. One fun fact we learnt about Icelandic culture straight away is that all children in Iceland are surnamed after their father’s first name. On that basis Ellen would be called Ellen Simonsdottir (daughter is dottir in Icelandic) and Danny would be referred to as Danny Simonsson. But to offset this paternalistic note our feminist sides were pleased to read on the outgoing Icelandair plane journey that Iceland is the top country in Europe for equal pay for women and men, and that they were the first country to have a female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir , who successfully led the country for three terms between 1980 and 1996.
We had made a pact to be energetic and go for it, so we could see as much of Iceland as possible in the short time we were there, slotted in between business commitments. So this is Iceland in 72 hours !
We had planned and booked most of our itinerary on-line and in advance- as you have to these days if you want to beat the crowds and the queues, and we chose to stay in a small steel shack, just off the main high street in the capital city of Reykjavik, home to 200,000 of the country population of just over 320,000 -so a bit of a focal point.
Did you know? The word “vik” means “bay” in Iceland and Reykjavik is “smoky bay”.
Before the holiday we had um’d and ah’d about going to the Blue Lagoon as it seemed rather costly and the photos and blurb in the e-brochures suggested it could be very touristic -which means very crowded. We weren’t sure either about going on a private tour in someone’s car. But actually, it was all fine. The tour-guide picked us up in her chocolate brown 4×4 for the 25minute drive from Reykjavik to our destination midway between twin towns Keflavik and Grindavik, and she was very friendly and informative.
We arrived at the Blue Lagoon early, and soon realised it was a wise decision by our tour guide to go there first before touring everywhere else. We beat the crowds and I must say the Blue Lagoon was heavenly! No other word can describe it. The Light blue water was 38c, the open air above was minus 5 so a dramatic contrast, and mists of steam rose up to give a cloudy back-drop to our swimming. It was relaxing-floating- around – bliss; just what we needed after a hectic last 3 months. The perfect way to unwind and to start the holiday. The 3-hour experience included a mud-facial and a glass of beer whilst in the lagoon at a pool-side bar.
Our Tour Guide waited for us whilst we had a snack in the café overlooking the lagoon. We felt really great after the Blue Lagoon experience, and we learnt that the light blue colour of the water is a result of mineral rich silicic acid and algae which is proven to be restorative and good for the skin.
In the early afternoon our personal tour guide took us on a guided Drive through tour of Reykjavik -the world’s northernmost city, famously known for its diversity and creativity.
We stopped at Lake Tjornin in the city, iced over in the winter and sometimes used as an Ice Rink. Hot water gushing into a small corner of about 40 metres of the lake thawed the ice and this swimming pool of warm water is where over 80 species of ducks, geese and other water bathing birds can be found.
We also stopped at Church Hallgrimskirkja a tall and large building of worship, which was light and tall-ceilinged inside and from the outside looks like a space shuttle on the launch pad. It was completed in 1986 and took 40years to build.
The Golden Circle Tour – by Coach. This is a 250km/155mile round trip. Its is timetabled to last 8 hours. Once more an early pick up in the city centre – this time in a large coach holding around 40 tourists, narrated by a guide with a microphone. The weather was very chilly and snowdrifts cut across the road and the surrounding white landscape as we travelled north.
What you will see….
Kerid a pseudo volcano-crater formed where volcanic lava leaked across a large pool. In summer this crater is technicoloured rock and a greeny lake but in winter its its all white iced-over lake and snow dusted crater sides.
Gullfoss the” golden waterfall”. This location was the northernmost location on our tour and beyond it the roads were blocked off as impassable during the winter. It was so cold and windy (make sure you pack warm clothes ), we felt like we were at the North Pole as we carefully covered the pathway of ice from the car park to the deep and impressive waterfall. Someone told us it was minus 15c there with the wind chill factor. We nearly got blown off the surrounding hills; it was so stormy.
Harkadular: A short trip from Gullfoss but much more sheltered and a modest minus 7 C is the area for a cluster of hot springs. The famous Geysir, which all hot springs are named after was energetic and explosive when I visited as a teenager, but has been dormant since 2000, and so its sibling Strokker has taken over as the showpiece erupting several times per hour for our tourist cameras. Hot mud springs are also bubbling away in the surrounding fields. Worth a visit all year round and there is a large cafe nearby for much needed refreshments and hot drinks.
Pingvellir National Park. This is the area of Iceland’s largest lake. It’s also the home of the Alping – an ancient Viking parliament dating back to around 900 where all the Icelandic laws where once made. It’s a dramatic landscape with a fault line causing the grey-black basalt rock to form a long wall across the upper part of the area and towering over the lower plain.
This is caused by tectonic plates and known as the Almanaaja Gorge. In geomorphology terms it is where Americas meets Europe, and the plates are splitting apart by 88cm per year. The coach tour dropped us off in the valley and we then had a steep trek off around 30 minutes to get to the top of the basalt ridge where the views of the valley were spectacular.
We would have liked to stay longer here but the coach tour guide rushed us back onto the bus. This is a downside of coach trips -you don’t get the choice about how long you stay to really appreciate spectacular landscapes such as this. The tour bus sped back to Reykyavik by mid- afternoon stopping only for us to feed some Icelandic Horses for 10 minutes.
Reykjavik has a reputation for nightlife and based on our experience there is a Drink-fest in the city on Fridays and Saturdays which goes on until the early hours of the next day with a party atmosphere and loud but friendly noise that you hear very clearly through the thin house walls when you have gone back to base. Its quieter during the week and Icelandic culture seems to see the weekend as the time when they go out partying. Good craft beers include local Lager, White, Pale Ale, Red, and Dark Porter.
Eating out is expensive unless you are self -catering and buy in the Supermarkets yet there is an amazingly good range of vegan and vegetarian options to choose from. Veganism has really taken off in Iceland and one cafe that my brother especially recommends is Gló.
For the meat- eaters the nearest to a pub with an American burger offering is the memorably named Bastard Bar. McDonalds is banned in Iceland but here you can eat American Diner food at reasonable rates whilst supping European beers and watching Sky Sports on the big screen.
The Elusive Northern Lights and the Perlan museum
Aurora Borealis is the posh scientific name for the Northern Lights. The best months to view them in Iceland are September, October and March when the sky is clear and less cloudy in Iceland. Lights of various green and bluey colours show in the sky like dancing curtains, where electrically charged particles from eruptions on the Sun are drawn by gravity into the magnetic fields of the North and South Pole.
To be honest seeing the Northern Lights was one of the big items on our list of things to see, even though February which was the only time we could go does not have the highest success rate for viewings, and we pre-booked evening coach tours in land to see them.
Sadly, the sky was indeed too cloudy for viewing on our visit and we were informed by text early afternoon that the trip was cancelled. We re-booked again for the next night-and the same thing happened, so with a sense of disappointment we decided to do the next best thing and go to see the 4D Movie about the Northern Lights at the Perlan museum a large globe like building at the top of the hill overlooking the whole city of Reykjavik.
Here the vista is amazing and the cinema view of the Northern Lights was pretty good too, when you have to settle for the virtual version of a sighting!
Whilst at the Perlan museum we also went in the Glacial Ice Tunnel which they have created on the lower floor. So, a good second best to the real thing as we didn’t have time in our visit to go see an actual glacier of which there are many in Iceland,but are much easier to reach in Summer.
So, in summary, Iceland ……….
Did it meet our expectations? Yes, in fact it exceeded them.
It was not as expensive as we had been led to believe – if you go for self-catering, stock up on food in the supermarkets and drink beer, wine and gin in the Happy Hours. There is plenty to see if you are interested at all in history, geography, and just somewhere that is very different.
Would we go again? Yes definitely. Next time we agreed we would go in the Summer where the dramatic contrast of colour across the landscape could be compared to the snow- and ice-covered experience of Winter. And at a time when we could explore the South Coast, a Glacier and Volcano or two, maybe the Vestmann Islands and the middle of the country around Landmannalauger -which is not easy to do in winter with the heavy snow and ice.
Let us know your own thoughts and experiences about Iceland in the comments section below.
**A couple of weeks later a work colleague went to Iceland and hired his own 4 x4 and downloaded an App which told him about a place in Iceland where there was no cloud cover that night. He and his girlfriend saw the Northern Lights using this technology at their first attempt and thought them to be fantastic**