It’s taken me a little while to get round to writing about our amazing trip to Iceland for my 30th birthday. That’s not just because we’ve been really busy with work and our imminent house move, but because we were so taken with Iceland that it’s taken me a while to absorb it all and to put into words what it was that I found so captivating about this little island nation. This is the first of three posts I’m going to write about our trip, and this one concentrates mainly on Iceland’s natural beauty. Subsequent posts will cover Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon.
Arriving in Iceland
We flew from London Heathrow with Icelandair; there are cheaper airlines, but I wanted to travel at a civilised hour. Their Boeing 757 jets are all named after places in Iceland; on the way there and back both planes were named after volcanoes, which I liked (but couldn’t pronounce!). Placards like these are stuck on the side of each of the planes for you to read as you’re waiting to board. Isn’t that nice?
It’s only a three-hour journey, but you get a state-of-the-art personal entertainment system that’s actually better than the ones you get on long-haul British Airways flights, so you can watch movies, TV etc all the way there (it even tells you if there’s not enough time left to watch a particular film!). The views of Iceland on the approach to Keflavik International Airport (which is about 40 minutes round the coast from Reykjavik) were every bit as breathtaking as you’d expect them to be.
We’d not been long on the ground when we experienced the famous changeability of Iceland’s weather. It went from sunny blue skies to a blizzard and back to sunshine again in the few minutes we stood waiting for a shuttle service to the nearby car hire company. The driver of the shuttle told us a saying I’d read about before – “if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait fifteen minutes!”
We picked up the hire car and it was a short drive from there to our hotel for the night, Hotel Keflavik (which turned out to be an excellent hotel that I would recommend). We had lovely views across to the harbour from our hotel room window. We were eager to explore while it was still light, so we dumped our luggage and set out straightaway for a drive around the local area, starting with the harbour.
Unsurprisingly, fishing is very important to the Icelandic economy, so we weren’t surprised to see lots of fishing boats during our drive along the seafront.
This was our hire car: a very green Suzuki S-cross four-wheel drive. We had no difficulty spotting it in car parks!
We then drove out of Keflavik on Iceland’s only motorway (the number 1, which is a ring road that goes right the way around the island) towards Reykjavik. We didn’t go all the way there, as the light was fading, but we stopped off at a couple of villages along the road to admire the surrounding views of volcanic cones and snowy mountains.
Will we be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights?
I knew it was a possibility, but I wasn’t actually expecting to see the Northern Lights, because I’d been checking the forecast and it said it would be cloudy for the entire time we were there. However, we asked the lady on the hotel reception desk if she thought it would be possible to see them from the town and she looked dubious, but said if we drove out a little way we *might* be able to see them, and they usually appear from about 9pm onwards. So we had a lovely pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven at a cosy restaurant that we walked to in town called Fernandos, and then went down to the coast to the spot where I’d photographed the boat before it got dark.
Our attention was caught by what looked like wispy cloud hovering in the sky above us, and initially we weren’t sure what it was. We saw shooting stars, too. But the wispy cloud kept coming and going, and although it was more of a milky colour, we realised that what we were seeing was indeed the Northern Lights! Captivated, we stood there for ages and watched it get stronger and greener, streaking right across the sky in the most remarkable way. It kept appearing in different places all around the sky, but it still wasn’t strong enough to appear on camera. We had mistakenly left the big camera in the hotel, so we dragged ourselves back to the hotel as quickly as we could to go and get it. By the time we returned to the seafront, that famously changeable Icelandic weather had brought another snow shower and the sky was obscured completely! Noooo!
Having witnessed how quickly the snow had disappeared earlier, we decided to wait it out. Sure enough, within about a quarter of an hour the sky had started to clear again, and this time the Northern Lights made themselves known in a bigger and brighter way than they had before.
It goes without saying that these grainy iPhone photos in no way do justice to this extraordinary sight. There were ribbons of vivid green and pink light rippling through the sky, again appearing in different places and coming and going. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, and it was the realisation of a lifetime ambition. We were so enthralled that we spent about an hour and a half out there, not minding the cold, mesmorised by this remarkable sight. It was the perfect way to spend the final hours of my twenties.
The following morning I awoke to the first day of my thirties. After I’d opened my presents and cards we enjoyed one of the best free hotel breakfasts I’ve ever had. There was the most amazing spread, including loads of smørrebrød, or open sandwiches (my new favourite thing!). Smoked salmon was in very plentiful supply, which is amazing for a free breakfast.
After breakfast it was time to head to the Blue Lagoon, which was a big enough experience to warrant its own post, so I won’t talk much about it here. We drove through snow-covered lava fields to get there (not molten, don’t worry!), and we could see the steam rising up from it as we approached.
Driving through the lava field was really interesting; at one point (not pictured), I even spotted a very clear solidified lava flow that would once have looked something like this.
We had a lovely morning bathing in the warm geothermal water, and I even had an in-water massage.
Then, after a delicious lunch in the upmarket Lava Restaurant right next to the lagoon itself, we set out towards our next destination, the ION Luxury Adventure Hotel. Apart from the strong wind, it was all going so well until we drove past Reykjavik and started out along the road to Þingvellir National Park. The roads went from being completely clear to being covered with snow, and it was a total white-out. Naturally we were (or rather Lee was) driving somewhat gingerly – we Brits not being very used to snow – but there were Icelanders whizzing past in bigger vehicles with enormous tyres, obviously not fazed by the conditions at all!
Anyhow, we continued like this for some miles before turning off down the road that would lead us to the hotel, and that’s when things got a bit hair-raising. We managed to get over the top of one hill despite thick snow making the experience incredibly bumpy, but we weren’t so lucky on the second one – we got lodged in a deep snowdrift by the side of the road, and couldn’t move either backwards or forwards! At this point we felt slightly panicky and under-prepared, as we didn’t even have a shovel in the back of the car (I had packed emergency chocolate though!). Luckily, however, we did still have a scrap of phone signal, so if the worst came to the worst we could dial 112, the emergency number that I’d casually memorised not thinking we’d actually have to use it!
Another four-wheel drive vehicle had been following us for many miles and it stopped behind us and out poured four friendly Chinese guys, also tourists, who came over and asked us if we wanted a push. Bear in mind that we were in the middle of a storm and it was really windy – a biting wind, at that – and the snow was so thick that it was sort of glowing blue in the cracks. I felt rather useless because Lee told me to stay in the car and keep warm while he and the Chinese guys tried to push us out, but I phoned the hotel to let them know we may not be able to make it. They said that the conditions were so bad that we should turn round and go back to the city. :(
The Chinese guys and Lee had no luck in pushing us out, so I got on the phone and dialled 112. Just as I was reading out our GPS coordinates to the police, another four-wheel drive pulled up, this time driven by an Icelander, and luckily he had a rope. So I told the police we were being rescued already and the Icelander successfully pulled us out. All the while another massive four-wheel drive vehicle coming the other way had been patiently waiting for us to get out the way – there was so much snow on the road that it had been reduced to a single track. He pulled up next to us after we were out and was very friendly and seemed to have seen it all before. He said “I don’t think you’ll be making it to the Hotel ION”! We apologised for holding him up and he said it wasn’t a problem, and we asked if he might be able to keep an eye on us for the next few miles back to the bigger road, and he said sure. So that was kind.
I hadn’t taken a photo of the car being stuck because I would’ve felt a bit silly taking photos while everyone else was working to free us, but we did take this video once we were back on the main road. The conditions in this video were good compared with what they had been!
From there we returned to Reykjavik, me feeling bitterly disappointed that we’d been within ten minutes’ drive of the ION hotel, which was the bit I’d planned the whole trip around, and then not being able to make it. We made our way directly to the hotel I’d booked for the next night – the Radisson Blu Saga – in the hope that they’d have a room for tonight as well. Luckily they did, and the chap on reception was so sympathetic about our travel woes that he gave us each a voucher for a free glass of wine or beer in the hotel bar! The storm was still raging outside and we were really tired, so we didn’t really fancy traipsing around Reykjavik trying to find a restaurant, so we ended up in Subway, of all places (Lee’s favourite chain!). It wasn’t exactly the way I’d planned my 30th birthday evening to be like, but at least we’d been to the Blue Lagoon and weren’t spending the night in the car stuck in snow. And although our room was right next to a noisy elevator, we did have a good view of Reykjavik airport from our hotel room window, so it could’ve been worse!
Next day, we had hoped that the weather would have cleared enough for us to head back out along the same snowy road as the day before to Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss – Iceland’s so-called ‘Golden Circle’. However, we asked at the tourist information office at the hotel and checked on the road conditions website that we’d only discovered after our ill-fated trip, and the consensus was that road conditions wouldn’t have improved enough for it to be sensible to try the trip. So instead we spent the day exploring Reykjavik, which I’ll write about in another post. Here’s a photo of Reykjavik in the meantime though.
On our final day our flight home wasn’t til late afternoon, so we had the morning to do one last trip. There wasn’t really time to get to Geysir and Gullfoss, so we followed the recommendation of the tourist information people at the hotel and went to Hveragerði, about an hour or so to the south of Reykjavik. There is a geothermal park there that was closed for the winter, but there’s also another geothermal area of hot springs, and we couldn’t leave Iceland without experiencing something of the ‘fire and ice’ that makes it so famous. The drive there was breathtaking, and happily the roads were clear.
On arriving in Hveragerði we parked up at the tourist information centre and had a look round a little free museum there dedicated to a strong earthquake that hit the area in 2008. The most interesting feature of this exhibition was a glass area of the floor that looks down on a fissure beneath the centre. This is apparently the meeting of two continental plates – the European and the North American. It’s one of several different places in Iceland where you can see this meeting of continents, which are drifting apart at a rate of a couple of centimeters a year. Those are, of course, red lights at the bottom (not magma!), just to make it look more dramatic!
The tourist information chap advised us to park at the swimming baths (geothermally heated, of course) and to walk a short way up the hill to see the hotsprings. This was the lovely view from the car park.
And this was the little waterfall just across the road.
We could see the steam issuing from the ground as we approached along the snowy footpath.
For obvious reasons, you weren’t allowed to get too close to the hotsprings, so most of the time all we could see was steam.
It was amazing to have the whole place completely to ourselves!
The red soil, steam and snow made the whole place feel very surreal, almost like being on another planet.
From there we made our way reluctantly back to the airport for our flight home.
Random thoughts about Iceland
Iceland was everything I expected it to be, and more. It’s beautiful, elemental, raw – a stark beauty unlike anything I’ve experienced before. The capital is surrounded by snowy mountains, while on the Reykjanes peninsula, where we started and ended the holiday, it was all black lava fields with little more than moss in the way of vegetation, and snow adding to the drama. Though it’s a comparatively young nation – it’s thought to have been settled in around AD 874 by the Vikings – there’s a real sense of history in the presence of Viking names (Reykjavik, Keflavik and Vik reminded me of the Viking heritage of our own Jorvik, or York) and references to Viking culture. That’s why I’ve used the word “saga” in the title of this post – a word one often seems to encounter in Iceland.
More than that, though, Iceland was very cosy. That’s a general feeling I had about the country, but it was helped by the fact that everywhere indoors was wonderfully warm and snug, and there were lots of fairy lights dotted magically around the trees in the towns, even though we’re long past Christmas. What’s more, there was something deeply relaxing about the experience of being in Iceland. Perhaps that’s because it’s so sparsely populated (two thirds of its 320,000 population live in Reykjavik), and you therefore can’t help getting out into the great outdoors, which is maybe why I came away feeling that Iceland had soothed my soul. We felt safe, and we never got that feeling one gets in so many countries that one is being exploited as a tourist. On the contrary, I felt that the country is very welcoming towards tourists, with liberal tourist information and superb quality food, even in the cafes that cater primarily for tourists (couldn’t be more different to Barcelona!). Everywhere we went we felt welcome, and we never had a bad meal. It’s always a good sign when, within hours of arriving in a new country, you’re already planning your next trip – and by the end of the trip, we genuinely didn’t want to leave!
More Iceland tales coming soon!