It’s the 1st of February and I’ve already had my first adventure of 2015 (and there’s sure to be lots more!). So take 1 good friend, 1 amazing package deal to Iceland, 1 Fuji X-Pro1, 1 x 18mm lens and 1 tripod and we are set for a trip that’s been on my list for a long time. Seeing the Northern Lights has featured highly on my wish list over the years but living amidst the bright lights of the city and not owning a car makes it a little difficult to get out when the forecasts are good for sightings here in Scotland.
So when Laura called and asked if I had seen the deal on Travelzoo – 3 nights in the Hotel Klettur (my hotel of choice during previous researching Iceland), flights from Edinburgh, transfers and a Northern Lights Mystery Tour for £205 in peak season I nearly screamed down the phone…BOOK IT! And we did. It was our birthday treat to ourselves and can I just say…we were NOT disappointed. I’ve never seen a deal like it through a fantastic little agency called Fleetway Travel, so it’s well worth checking them out if you are interested in this kind of weekend away! I’d highly recommend them.
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from Iceland but it far exceeded anything I could have imagined. It was a truly fantastic trip. Housing two thirds of the countries population, Reykjavik is a colourful and welcoming city (even in biting wind and blinding snow storms!) with a flair of elegance and some outstanding architectural structures. Out of the city the natural beauty of the landscapes doused in snow were utterly breath-taking, the service in shops and restaurants was excellent, the food was delicious – though I didn’t eat puffin, shark, whale or any of the other local delicacies this time!!! It wasn’t as expensive as I had been led to believe and our hotel was in the perfect location – close enough to town but not too close to have our sleep disturbed by the boisterous goings on of the Icelanders at the weekend. According to our tour guides they love to drink and be merry on their downtime at the weekends. Oh and the Icelanders have fairy lights up all year round – which I understand is to bring as much light as possible to the dark winter nights. In addition they leave their curtains & blinds open too – so if you are like me and love admiring other people’s style (and the Icelanders do have style!) then you are going to be in heaven. I think you get the picture that I liked it?!?! So please, feast your eyes on our whistle stop tour of the bottom left hand corner of Iceland.
On our first morning we had booked to go whale watching however the snow and wind put paid to that…so at sunrise – yip around 10.30am we decided to take a stroll around the city centre. Now it would be fair to say that I hate shopping…other than the online version. However if you give me book shops, outdoor shops and galleries then you might just persuade me to while away a few hours…and Reykjavik did just that! I loved that a high percentage of the shops house coffee shops or offer free hot drinks – now that is the way to do it in minus temperatures! I was almost tempted to buy a new jacket in Marmot as I have one that has done me proud for over 10 years!!! But they are cheaper to buy in the UK. From here we wandered down to the waterfront and took some refuge from the biting wind and captured a couple of nice shots of the water fountain, just incase we needed refreshments! Then onto one of the most famous landmarks of Reykjavik, the Sun Voyager Sculpture. The skies were pale and clouded but the sculpture is none the less impressive and you can see some of the construction works that feature throughout the city too.
We strolled round past the mighty and impressive Harpa Concert and Conference centre which is the recipient of the prestigious Mies Van der Rohe award for architecture. We again took respite from the blasting winds for a few minutes. It didn’t deter our enthusiasm as we battled our way round to our next stop – the old Harbour. Here we would come across a marvellous waterfront restaurant Kopar where we had an delicious lunch and yes the most incredible dessert I have ever eaten…and that is praise indeed from me!!! If you ever visit then be sure to try the caramel cake with salt caramel, rhubarb sorbet and hazelnut praline. It left me speechless!After a rejuvenating meal (we were also super impressed by the healthful menus on offer here) and a holiday glass of wine we were ready to amble on further. Across to the Square and through a few more shops and galleries as the sun begun to lower in the skies. My enthusiasm for shopping was waning…
And yes for the observant amongst you, that is my camera-shy (minor understatement there!) friend Laura in the background of the photo below. That’s about the only one she’d let me publish :)
So the sun’s going down…and tempting as it was to stop off and have a coffee outside! Nope I don’t think so, I was heading off to the top of the hill – look to the right of the coffee shop photo below. Yip, that was where I wanted to be before sundown. I wandered upwards, Laura still meandered around the fantastic jewellery shops.
And this was our destination. The magnificent Hallgrimskirkja Church which perches high in the city looking out over it’s people. It’s a remarkable feat of architecture and the blue skies really do show it of in all it’s glory. But inside, whilst busy with tourists it still had a sense of peace and calm. Simple and breathtaking. And then it was time to leave for a few short hours of rest before our Northern Lights Tour. We had upgraded to the Luxury tour as the basic tour was cancelled due to not having the time to get out to good viewing areas given the forecast. We had a wonderful guide Gudbgorg, whose gentle voice gave us a plethora of interesting information about the city and the wider country over the 8 hours of our tour. It was a fascinating adventure however the elusive Northern Lights were not out to play and so the photographs below are the best I could get. Another plus is that when you are unsuccessful in your tours, you have the option to book onto another tour free of charge. Our tour was deemed as a no-show, so we can rebook another time! That’s pretty impressive but I guess not everyone who is there for a weekend has the time to do that. However the tickets last for up to two years. So it looks like we will just need to go back then.The next day we were booked onto the Golden Circle Tour – we had decided to take organised tours this time as we weren’t sure about driving in the winter road conditions – and oh how glad we were to have decided that as our day unfolded! Our first stop of the day was to Pingvellir National Park or the site of Iceland’s Parliament Fields where all historically significant events in Icelandic history have taken place. In geological terms Pingvellir is also significant in that it is the continuation of the Rift Valley – where the Eurasian and North American plates are still drifting apart – and you can walk down into and through the valley. It is somewhat different from my experience of walking through the Rift Valley in Kenya but none the less spectacular. We had decided to take an afternoon stop off at Fontana Wellness Centre along with another dozen or so people. So at -2 degrees outside you might wonder why oh why we would be up for this. It was freezing but to be honest I loved it. The moving between temperatures gave me a boost of energy and the ginger soup in the cafe after was the perfect warmer. Oh yes and the lime cheesecake and coffee helped too :)We were a little surprised to see the vehicle that had come to collect us from the Spa. It was a winter truck – not unlike those that do the overland tours in rugged terrain around Africa. Did they know something we didn’t? It would appear they did but then when you are on holiday you are not always looking at the weather reports are you?!?! Out jumps a warm, friendly, enthusiastic red-head guide named Dee-Dee to welcome us onboard! She is burning with fun, facts and yes, weather reports. Dee-Dee introduces Saevar (a good name really and quite close to Saviour!!!) and tells us we are in good hands and in a great vehicle but that there is a storm coming in and they are in direct contact with the met office to keep abreast of the situation. Our tour would continue but we would need to monitor it closely.
Within the hour we were pulling into the carpark of what was to be the absolute highlight of our trip, Gullfoss waterfalls. Sometimes it’s good to go along to a place unprepared, as I’ll never forget my first sight of this magnificent and majestic waterfall. Dee-Dee had warned us to take good care as the Icelanders didn’t really believe in putting up fences and railings to keep you away from the edge. We had been warned. Well just take a look for yourself…
Utterly spectacular! It was then time to visit the Geysir but to be honest it was always going to be difficult to follow Gullfoss. Oh and just in case you wondered, this is our truck below! The Geysir was well, a geysir and whilst that’s a spectacular natural phenomenum it didn’t really grab us. Unfortunately Laura took a nasty fall too, thankfully nothing that needed a hospital trip instantly! And isn’t that a relief. And isn’t it also true that I have learned not to post certain things on Facebook in real time in the knowledge that my Dad would be in a fit of worry :) So, back into the truck and Dee-Dee tells us that the storm is coming in sooner than expected and that now the race is on to get to the mountain pass before it closes. Hmmm! Laura and I have front row seats and by now it’s pitch black, raining heavily and the water is pouring in from the roof behind the driver. It’s starting to feel a lot more of an adventure that we had first anticipated…So the race is on and we can see Dee-Dee constantly checking the forecasts and speaking to the weather station and other guides for updates. The rain turns to slush and hail, the water drips faster and then Dee-Dee turns and say’s sorry folks, the mountain pass is closed as there are over 100 vehicles stranded and needing dug out. It was a bit hard to believe that the weather can be so ferocious in different parts of the country but there it was. The mountain – our route back -was closed and more roads were closing by the minute. We pull in to a service station and Dee-Dee calls her boss to take advice about what to do next. We are told to stock up on supplies as it could be a long night. Waaaa, well we hadn’t bargained for this little addition to our tour! But we were in the best kind of vehicle for whatever the weather would send us. Seavar and one of the guys on the tour braved the now torrential snow to put snow chains on the wheels. There were still a few roads open so we had the all clear from the bosses at Grayline Tours and we would attempt to get back to the city. We set off, and within a few miles the snow chains would thud, coming off as there was not enough snow for them to catch a grip. Further still and again they would release. Eventually Seavar decided to take them off. We carried on and remarkably the storm didn’t hit us on the road. We had to take an astoundingly long round about trip but we made it back in one piece with great team work and moral boosting from the Gray Line Tours Team Dee-Dee and Saevar. So again if you are ever out on a tour with them, you are in for a treat! They were brilliant however we were glad to climb into our warm and cosy beds that night!
Well if you are still reading at this point I salute you as it’s a long read and a lot of photographs but there you have it, my first time in Iceland and what an adventure it was. So we didn’t see whales or the Northern Lights (to any real degree) but that didn’t get in the way of a wonderful trip. Our last visit was to the famous Blue Lagoon – a place that many people recommend. It was fine but to be honest was my least favourite part of the trip. It was insanely busy and was a bit too conveyor beltish for my liking. Of course I know that it’s a major tourist attraction but I felt that so many other parts of the this corner of Iceland had got the balance right – this wasn’t one of them for me. So I’m not sure that it would feature in any future trips I take but that’s just my opinion for you. I did however quite enjoy the feeling of the salts under my feet and the colour of the water whilst the snow and wind blew a hoolie round my ears. Oh and the lunch in the restaurant was pretty great too.
Well I’ve already decided I’m going to return during summer to do a driving tour around the whole Island – which is a mere 1180 miles with lots to see and do around this Arctic gem. The only question is when!
I hope you enjoyed our little tour and as always feel free to leave some comments or share your experiences of Iceland. I’d love to hear about them! Until the next time,