I’d been modest in compiling my Christmas list last year, asking Santa for and receiving a couple of photography books and a bottle of my favourite perfume. However I think I must have been a particularly good girl as I also opened a card from my husband which announced we would be going on a short break to Iceland at the beginning of March to hopefully see the Northern Lights. To be fair, Mr E had clearly tuned in! I’ve lots of friends who have visited Iceland in order to see this amazing spectacle, and I probably had mentioned it once or twice (or maybe more than that) over the last couple of years. Needless to say, Christmas morning was one of those very rare times when I was rendered speechless!
Fast forward to 4.15 am on Sunday 4th March when the alarm went off. In our village we’d been very lucky in that we missed most of the extreme weather which hit the UK earlier in the week, our trip to Manchester was straightforward, we got through the baggage drop and security with relative ease and settled down to breakfast ahead of our flight. Just under two and a half hours later, we arrived in Keflavik to a beautifully sunny day albeit with a rather biting wind and I was very glad I’d invested in a warm coat prior to our trip.
The transfer to Reykjavik was both prompt and swift (Grayline – excellent all round), and our check in at the Centrum Hotel equally as efficient, so bags dropped, we took off for a recce around the city. I’d had mixed reviews of Reykjavik, but there’s no substitute for seeing a new city with your own eyes and in that first afternoon, despite having palpitations over the cost of a modest lunch for two, we managed to cover almost 6 miles and get our bearings.
Having made our way back to the hotel, we pulled on extra layers and dropped hand and foot warmers into our pockets for the night ahead, it was to be our first trip with the hope of seeing the Northern Lights. We were once again in the capable hands of Grayline who took us to a now disused NATO base back towards the airport, along the way, our witty and knowledgeable guide explained the science behind the Aurora Borealis and how the colours are generated and was quick to point out that there were no guarantees that we would see this natural phenomenon.
We spilled out onto the tarmac and were hit by the most punishingly cold wind we have ever experienced…thankfully the layers worked, however my hands were so cold I could barely set up my camera, and I needed to fast, as our guide pointed out the faint trace of the aurora starting to develop. Then there it was, it looked like a streak of cloud and then a little glimmer which my camera picked up better than the naked eye, but it was definitely there!
There came a point in the evening when most of the people on the trip conceded defeat and jumped back on the coach to warm up, thanks to the hand-warmers, my fingers slowly regained their feeling and Mr E and I were having a pleasant chat. Suddenly a guide from a neighbouring coach ran up the steps and implored us to leave the cosiness of the bus as the lights were back, this time much stronger than before. The aurora glowed and faded for almost 20 minutes, and then suddenly it was gone and it was time to thaw out on the trip back.
After a good breakfast on Monday morning (top tip – fill up on breakfast, it keeps you going longer than you realise), we made our way to the pick-up point for our South Iceland, Waterfalls and Black Beaches excursion. Picking up Route 1, and driving through lichen and snow covered lava fields which looked almost otherworldly, we headed for Hveragerði, an area outside of Reykjavik known for its’ use of geothermal energy to heat greenhouses and support of the horticultural industry. The town regularly experiences minor earthquakes and as we passed through, the smell of sulphur was clearly evident along with the plumes of steam from beneath the ground. Next up was Selfoss a busy little town whose claim to fame seems to be a suspension bridge built by the English and the grave of Chess champion Bobby Fischer who is buried there. It has to be said the scenery is pretty spectacular and we passed countless herds of Icelandic horses along the way as the area is well known for its’ equine breeding programme. Our guide Alfur continued to regale us with stories of elves, hidden people, trolls and Vikings and share his geological expertise as we made our way onwards along Route 1. Passing Hekkla (Iceland’s second most active volcano) and then Seljalandsfoss (which we were to visit on our return journey) we carried on under the shadow of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano which caused so much disruption during the spring of 2010, grounding flights across Europe for almost three months. Our first stop was Skogarfoss, one of Iceland’s biggest waterfalls and famed for its’ inclusion in a number of music videos and popular films (Thor, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). The spectacle of the cascade plunging some 200 feet and the ice sculptures alongside it made for an awesome photograph, and I even managed to capture a rainbow!
After dropping off some intrepid glacier walkers, we head for the black sand beach of Vik where we learned the fate of the three trolls who were petrified by the sun whilst they tried to pull a boat ashore. We stopped an enjoyed a bowl of Icelandic Meat Soup for lunch, in truth it was a hearty lamb stew by any other name and then wandered down to the shore for a better view of those naughty trolls (Reynisdrangar).
On our return to the coach, we began to retrace our journey this time stopping at another black beach, Reynisfjara which has a steep cliff with twisted basalt columns and a large cave. It is also well-known for a phenomenon known as ‘sneaker waves’ which can apparently catch unsuspecting beach walkers unaware and drag them out to sea, thankfully the surf was relatively calm during our visit. Looking back you can also make out the natural arch of Dyrhólaey.
Having taken some more photographs, we picked up the walkers from the Sólheimajökull Glacier and made our way to Seljalandsfoss waterfall, another cascade of around 200 feet with a cave behind which is accessible once the weather improves later in the year. This particular waterfall also has a claim to fame, it featured in a Justin Bieber video and as such enjoys many visitors simply because of that fact, well each to their own I guess.
Our journey home and a glorious sunset saw us arrive at the hotel just after 7.00pm and brought to a close a very enjoyable day and we dined in the hotel bar, with Mr E savouring and enjoying Icelandic beer, I say savouring as it was almost £10 a glass, but hey, we were on holiday!
Tuesday morning dawned and it was a little cloudy with light snow forecast, however by the time we set off to explore the city more fully the skies were clearing, the sun was pushing through and there was no sign of the snow we’d been warned about. Reykjavik is quite a sprawling city with a number of individual districts; however the central part is easily navigable on foot. We sought out the Punk Museum of Reykjavik, housed in a disused gents toilet block where we met Alfur (it means ‘Elf’ in Icelandic) and we enjoyed a good 40 minutes looking at the material, listening to and talking about music and buying CDs, which made Mr E particularly happy.
As we wandered up to the imposing Hallgrimskirkja we found yet another record shop which made him even happier.
Then it was my turn, if you get the chance, seek out a little shop called Fotografi on Skólavörðustígur . Run by a group of photographers, it not only contains iconic and contemporary work for sale, it also has a most amazing collection of cameras and other photographic ephemera, I could have stayed there a lot longer than we did, and needless to say came home with some mementos of our trip with which to adorn our home.
We stopped for coffee and ‘Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake’ across the road in Fish & More, quite fitting as we would celebrate our 22nd wedding anniversary a few days later and then struck out for the Sun Voyager sculpture along the harbour-front and the impressive Harpa Opera Hall and conference centre.
All throughout our roam around the city we came across lots of sculptures and also huge murals usually on the sides of buildings, but sometimes on a wall or even a car park, it certainly gives you a feeling that as well as music, the Icelanders like their art.
We decided to wander back to the hotel and found a ‘piggy’ themed bar to stop for a drink and tried local beers (actually we had two as it was happy hour!) followed by dinner in the hotel bar again as it had been so good the evening before.
Iceland is unlike anywhere else we’ve visited, it has the most dramatic scenery (and we’ve only scratched the surface), it’s vibrant, very clean, everything runs efficiently and with great punctuality and the Icelanders are a warm and friendly bunch who are proud of their history. They do have a slightly odd taste in food, smoked puffin, minke whale and fermented shark most definitely did not make it into our plates. It is also very expensive compared to the UK, I’d say a credit card as back up is a must, however with a little careful planning (like booking your trips before you go – almost half the cost if you do) it doesn’t have to bankrupt you, we still had enough cash left over for a bottle of duty free Icelandic gin at the airport.
So will we go back? In all probability, yes, there is so much more to see, and perhaps when it is a little warmer and the spring flowers are out. For this trip, seeing the aurora was the best moment ever I can honestly say that despite the -16C temperature thanks to the biting wind, I will never ever forget that evening, so I’ll close this blog with one last image.
Until next time