7 days in Iceland
04.04.2015 - 11.04.2015 0 °C
Fly North for three hours from London and you arrive in Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. In a country of just over 300,000 people, around 125,000 Icelanders live in the city.
We landed late afternoon at what felt like an empty Keflavik Airport. Quickly through Passport Control and then Baggage Reclaim we were soon on the bus that would transfer us to the Reykjavik Centrum Hotel in the middle of Reykjavik.
Snow had fallen during the previous week but the relative warmth of April had cleared the majority of it by the time we arrived. However, it was still cold, especially so as a result of the almost constant breeze that whipped around the country from various directions. It was Easter Saturday and for the rest of the day plus Easter Sunday the time was our own. Everything we planned to do during our stay had been arranged prior to arrival and this certainly took a lot of the hassle away and also saved us time.
A quick look around the centre, close to the hotel, plus something to eat and drink in the hotel bar effectively took care of what remained of Saturday although we were booked for the Northern Lights Tour that first night but due to weather conditions this had been cancelled so was re-booked for the following night. Then on Sunday there was plenty of time to explore further and find out what the city had to offer. A mental note was taken of any bars and restaurants that could be useful during the week.
For a small city (medium sized town maybe) the locals do like a bit of public art;…..urban art;…. graffiti;…… call it what you like. There is a lot about and like anywhere else, some of it is good and some it is quite simply untidy and far removed from art. Personally, I quite like a lot of it.
The reviews that we had read beforehand stressed how well located the hotel was and this soon became apparent. It took very little effort or time to reach The Old Harbour, The Harpa Concert Hall, The Cathedral or the shops, bars and restaurants. We also quickly realised how expensive Iceland is. It wasn’t exactly a surprise but it’s only when you start paying the bills for teas, coffees, lunches, dinners and alcohol that it really hits home.
The weather in Iceland is definitely challenging, even in the relatively calm season that, for us in the UK, is Spring. The often strong winds around the North Atlantic mean that the weather can change quite frequently and quite dramatically. Without exaggeration we could be in bland dry greyness one minute and then twenty minutes later it could be clear blue skies and sunshine followed twenty minutes after that by a snow storm and then the same period later we would be battling with hail and/or rain. The locals claimed that it had been the toughest Winter in 20 years. It had started snowing on and off from the November and was still snowing on and off while we were there in April. And when it snows it really snows!
So, back to the hotel after a day strolling around Reykjavik and generally getting our bearings, it was time to take advantage of the happy hour (two hours actually) which on a 2 for 1 basis at least brought the price of drinks back to something like UK prices. And to be honest, the bar at the hotel was such a nice environment to spend time in that it was something that we made a point of doing on every day except one while we were there.
For dinner that night we ventured out (having eaten at the hotel on our first night) but we didn’t have to go far as Restaurant Uno looked good and was probably only 200 yards away from the hotel. The food was always good, wherever we ate, and fish (Including Whale!), lamb, chicken and even Puffin were easy to find on a menu. Back at the hotel we discovered that the Northern Lights Tour had again been cancelled so was re-booked (again) for the following night, the Monday.
Our first proper day out seeing what there was to see was on the Monday when we were touring the Golden Circle. It’s a 7 to 8 hour tour and takes in Pingvellir National Park, Gulfoss, Geyser and a Geo-Thermal Power Plant. The weather played its part, as expected. At Pingvellir, the site of the first ever Parliament – The Althing – you can also see the tectonic plates and the North Atlantic Ridge. It’s a great area for scenery with waterfalls and a river running through the valley, surrounded by snowy mountains.
The weather changed by the time we reached Gulfoss but cleared again before we left the area. Gulfoss is Iceland’s largest waterfall and has at its peak more water rushing over it than Niagara Falls. Much of it was frozen when we saw it which made the landscape and resulting photographs a little bit different to anything we had seen before. By the time we had had lunch at the site the weather had changed yet again and we had transitioned from driving hail to relatively clear and back to driving hail.
Onward to Geysir, the only Icelandic word that has made its name in an international sense. Geysir is the name of the town where there are a predominance of Hot Springs that have, in turn, become known and referred to as ‘Geysers’. There were outlets everywhere with funnels of steam plus the strong smell of sulphur drifting into the air all across the landscape. They spout quite irregularly although Geysir has its own fairly reliable Hot Spring that manages to satisfy the tourists at reasonably consistent intervals of 4 to 5 minutes. But remember, what goes up also comes down, and the water is hot! Photographically the eruption is fairly easy to capture as there is a noticeable build-up of pressure before the water rises slowly before being fired into the air and then ultimately soaking those below that haven’t bothered checking the wind direction before taking up their place around the edge of the Hot Spring.
From Geysir we continued around the circle to the Hellisheidi Geo-Thermal Power Plant where we stopped briefly for a video presentation and a quick look around the plant. 95% of the heating in Iceland is now provided free to the people and geo-thermal activity also contributes to subsidised electricity for the country.
It had been a long day by the time we were back in Reykjavik but a really good one and we were in the hotel to take advantage of Happy Hour! In a way it was also good news that after the day we had just had the Northern Lights Tour had again been cancelled. You know the routine by now; rebooked for Tuesday night!
The following day was a free day for us so we had a chance to plan what we wanted to do. This included visits to the Old Harbour, the Viking Museum (why you might ask!!), the Whales Iceland Exhibition, shopping and lunch in the centre of town plus a proper look at both the Cathedral and the Harpa Concert Hall. And it was cold with a mixture of that bland dry greyness, clear blue skies and sunshine and a snow storm that I referred to previously. The timing of the snow storm coincided with us being at the midpoint of walking from the hotel to our furthest destination, the Viking Museum, just past the Old Harbour. We got battered for a while and were grateful to be able to seek refuge at the first available opportunity which happened to be the Viking Museum. Around half an hour spent in the museum was followed by a short but cold walk (it was clear and sunny by now by the way!) to the Whales Iceland Exhibition which was worth a visit (although quite pricey!). From there we walked back through the Old Harbour past all the Whale Watching Boat companies and then back towards the centre for lunch. The afternoon was spent down by the Harpa Centre where we took advantage of the clearer skies for photos of the mountains across the bay and then back among the shops and cafes before heading back to the hotel. The Northern Lights Tour had already again been cancelled so maybe tomorrow (Wednesday) night??
Wednesday was a big, long day.
We had booked a day (approx. ten hours) in a Superjeep. This would take us further afield and to places not easily (if at all) accessible by ‘normal’ road transport. Sitting high off the ground with huge wheels and large clearances we were plunged down into and across rivers, over lava beds, up snowy hills, through breaking waves on the beaches and occasionally on normal roads. The seat belts would occasionally tighten fiercely as you were thrown left, right, backwards, forwards and upwards as your body reacted to the stresses being placed on the Jeep. Our first stop was the site of the lava flow from E15, the volcano that erupted violently in 2010 and disrupted so much air traffic (including almost diverting us to Paris as we returned from Cuba into London Heathrow). The lava flow melted a huge glacier and initially flooded the valley that we had just driven through before coming to rest as high up the freshly snowed mountain as we could reach. The mountain had also suffered fresh cracking in the 2010 eruption and these were clearly visible. And despite the stillness of the landscape, the constantly changing light and cloud cover altered the view sufficiently enough to overwork the camera before we made our way back through the snow in the jeep. Bouncing through the rivers provided a free car wash (including the roof!) on several occasions as we not so slowly worked our way back to genuine tarmac.
It was a day of contrasts and from the stark whiteness of fresh snow we moved on to the somehow clean and pure blackness of the sand on Iceland’s beaches. The Superjeep was in its element, throwing itself into and over the dunes, flirting with the waves as they crashed onto the sand and creating patterns with its oversized but absolutely invaluable tyres. In slightly surreal fashion we drove past the unexpected sight of the wreck of an old United States aircraft that was slowly deteriorating on the highest part of the beach. But the real interest lay in the remains of a Whale, beached and at one time buried under the sands but since uncovered during the recent Winter by the storms that had hit the country.
Our next stop was at a series of waterfalls in the valley, the first of which was only properly visible through a small opening in the rock, creating an open-topped cavern that, with a bit of care, you could access via stepping stones in the stream leading from the fall. This took you right up to the waterfall where getting wet was an inevitability but it was still worth a look. From here you could walk alongside the side of the rock past several other falls to the next big one and there follow a path behind the fall and out the other side.
Back on the road and the weather changed again. From blue skies at the falls we were suddenly back in the grips of another blizzard and by the time we stopped again there was a fresh dusting of snow covering the surrounding countryside. We pulled in alongside a shallow river that was being fed by another fall about 350 metres from where we had parked. There were routes to walk up to the top or alternatively you could get as close to the bottom of the fall as possible; and this was the option we took. Initially, with the snow falling and visibility being less than ideal, I settled for a few quick photographs before we ventured inside the café for a drink in the hope that the weather would again change as quickly as it just had. Fifteen minutes later and sure enough we had blue skies again. What a difference that made to what we were now able to see. The photos taken previously would have been good enough as memories but now, with the contrast of the blue skies, the fresh snow, the clear water from the fall, the sunshine and now also a rainbow the scenery was even more impressive. We took our time walking to the waterfall and then back again before climbing back into the jeep to begin our journey back to Reykjavik. It had been a really good day.
On the road back our driver was in contact with his boss who confirmed that he would be running the Northern Lights tour that evening and so, although we were booked with a different company, it appeared that we could be in for a very late night. On arrival back at the Centrum Hotel, confirmation that our Northern Lights tour was indeed ON could be found on the main desk in reception. So, for the one and only time we missed out on Happy Hour and headed out for something to eat. The closest restaurant was The Fish Market, literally a few yards walk, and it was somewhere we thought we might try one evening although looked like it would be slightly more expensive than the average, And it was!! Lovely place, nice menu and great food but we did pay for it.
The Northern Lights tours start with a pickup at the hotel at 9 o’clock and then the object is to head out of the city and ‘hunt’ for the lights. It has to be clear (no clouds) and very dark and there also has to be the required level of activity. It was certainly clear, albeit a little patchy, darkness (even at 9 pm) wasn’t quite what it needed to be yet and as for activity, that would also hopefully come later. We drove for over an hour towards The Althing (the site of the first Parliament and the North Atlantic Ridge) that we had visited two days previously. We were one of several coaches arriving at this particular venue but it had the real advantage of the café/restaurant staying open for the time we were there and this at least gave us somewhere to occasionally warm up in-between standing in almost pitch-black on the snow trying to spot the slightest movement or hint of Green, Red or Purple in the night sky. The clock ticked by as we all diligently stared skywards in complete silence (almost as if too much noise may frighten the lights away!). 11 o’clock arrived – nothing; Midnight arrived – still nothing. Time to get inside for a while and warm up a bit; it was around two degrees below freezing and just standing around doing nothing was taking its toll on everybody. We certainly weren’t in the minority when we got into the room and there was no sitting room and to be honest little standing room but at least it was warm. Then, a knock on the window resulted in everybody stirring into action with a rush for the doors similar to that when the New Year sales open on Oxford Street! So, out we went again and found somewhere reasonable to stand where a view in a northerly direction would be largely unobstructed by others. The faintest hint of Green light was visible over the top of the facing mountain and this moved and altered slightly before disappearing. And that was pretty much it. Half an hour later the coaches were starting their engines and on the snow covered road back towards Reykjavik. We had all received the “can’t control nature’ and ‘no guarantees’ speech on the way out from the city and the fact that this was at the back end of the season for seeing the Northern Lights meant that nobody was too surprised at the weak display of lights on this particular occasion. But we were soon to receive an unexpected bonus. No more than twenty minutes into our drive back to the city and the coach was pulling over alongside two or three others in a parking area on the top of a hill. The driver had noticed some activity and before allowing everybody off the coach had stopped to check if it was something worth stopping for. And it was. Suddenly, a rush of passengers squeezed towards the coach door and we made our way out into the cold air again and took up a position from where we could say a strong line of Green colouring the outline edge of the mountain in front of us. This was a much stronger light than the one previously and it then changed, displaying upward streams of light from the arc of green created by the shadow outline of the mountain. It fluttered and faded for a while before totally disappearing but generally we all felt a lot better about justifiably claiming to have now seen the Northern Lights. It certainly wasn’t the most spectacular display you would ever see but at least we saw something.
It was 2 o’clock by the time we reached our hotel but we had nothing planned for the following morning (Thursday) so we could at least get what had been a very long day out of our system before starting again tomorrow.
To hell with the expense, we had breakfast at the hotel next morning. It was a slow start to the day following the ‘big day’ yesterday. We had the morning free until 11 o’clock when we were heading off to the Blue Lagoon for a few hours so we spent a bit more time around the centre. It was snowing (again)!
Swimming gear organised, we made our way to the bus that would take us to the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon was a natural hot spa on a lava field and had become a very popular destination for both locals and tourists. It was close to the airport and Keflavik and took about an hour to reach it - you could see the steam from the facility in the distance as we approached. The smell of sulphur was again strong as we walked to the entrance and showed our tickets at the reception area. We hired robes and towels and found our way towards the changing areas where the benefits of a very clever and secure locker system made life easier when you want to take a few photos and then put your camera away for a while. It’s a natural lagoon so don’t anticipate it being kind to your feet. The bottom is invisible as the water is a milky blue colour and it’s also very uneven; smooth in some areas, sharp in others and consistently undulating. But it’s a lot warmer in the water than it is out and the water temperature varies as you move around as some areas are much hotter than others. As with most things in Iceland, it’s an expensive experience but fairly unique and not something you have the chance to do every day. We used the café while we were there (more money!!) and suddenly it started snowing again, this time heavily. Visibility diminished dramatically and all but a few remained in the water. Jan decided she wanted to be one of them, which was fine. Then, showered and changed we paid our bill (Ouch!) and walked through the snow back to the bus that would be leaving for Reykjavik at 3 o’clock.
Back in the city around 4 o’clock we wandered from the bus station to the hotel via the Café Paris which we had found and liked a few days before, getting back in time for Happy Hour. Later we decided to return to Restaurant Uno for our evening meal and made plans for the following morning which we again had free to do as we wanted.
Plans for our last full day, such as they were, included shopping and a visit to the Cathedral to go up the tower for views and photos over the city.
We woke to a lovely day; still some snow around but the sky was clear and the sun was shining; perfect for the tower so that would now have to be our priority – just in case the weather changed! Everything in Reykjavik was easily walkable and once you’d got your bearings it took very little time to get anywhere so we aimed for the Cathedral as soon as we were up and ready. We timed it well as a queue seemed to build just after we bought our tickets and waited to go up in the elevator. At the top you have to climb a few steps to get to the highest point but the views from there are great. Iceland, in general, is a fairly Black and White country with the dark lava fighting with the ice and snow for dominance. To add colour, the Icelanders make their homes and other buildings as colourful as possible and, from the top of the Cathedral Tower, the view looks like a model village made from Lego bricks with all the various coloured roofs taking centre stage. In the distance the bay and harbour and behind that the mountains looked in immaculate condition on what for us was the clearest day we had seen in the capital city.
Back down the hill from the Cathedral we shopped for one or two items and generally took our time before a coffee break at The Laundromat Café, close to the hotel. Time was pushing on and we had a pickup at 1 o’clock from the hotel to get us down to the Old Harbour to get the boat and go out Whale Watching. It was a three hour excursion around the bay and would be the last real event of our trip to Iceland. It was cold but still clear and after getting our tickets and boarding the boat we were all offered thick overalls as protection against the wind. We accepted!! We sat outside on the middle deck and one of the crew sat on the top deck looking for whatever he could see and then pointing it out to us. Unfortunately, on the day there was very little activity in the water around Reykjavik other than a small pod of Porpoises which from our side of the boat we didn’t really see in any case. Being April, we were at the very end of the Northern Lights season and the very beginning of the Whale Watching season so we came with low expectations of seeing either. I suppose one out of two isn’t bad. So, out of the overalls and back on Terra Firma we walked around the Old Harbour and headed back towards the centre where we had promised ourselves one of the local Hot Dogs available from the kiosk in the Main Square. It was just after 4:30 so was closing in on that time again ……….. Happy Hour! A couple of hours and drinks in the hotel bar and we got ready and ventured out to Bistro Geysir for our final meal in Iceland.
The morning call for transfer to the airport was an early one – 0300, so a late night was off the agenda. A bleary eyed ride to Keflavik Airport came around all too quickly but it had been a good week. It had snowed again through the night and Iceland was White once again. Our flight was the first one out that morning and we arrived back in the UK before 11 o’clock (Local Time) with lighter wallets but a few photos and memories to make up for it.