Ever since hearing of Hekla and the ’Mid Atlantic Rift’ during A Level geography, I have always wanted to visit Iceland (I don’t count a 2 hour refuelling stop at Keflavik in a C130 back in 1985 as having visited Iceland). In December I somehow came across a guided trip offered by Regent Holidays (www.regentholidays.co.uk ) to view the Northern Lights that would fir my tight schedule for the 1st half of 2016 where a long trip would not be feasible. Obviously this would not be too adventurous as a micro adventure – what with organised hotels and a comfortable bus and tour guide but it was reasonably cheap and most importantly I could squeeze in a bucket list destination using time most efficiently!
Thursday 28 January started at 0300 as Icelandair don’t start flying from Aberdeen until March 2016, we had to catch the 0600 BA flight to Heathrow in order to get the FI451 1300 departure to Keflavik. It was somewhat annoying as we ended up in the air an hour out of Heathrow that afternoon watching Aberdeen slide beneath the starboard wing as we headed northwards. Never mind we were on our way and the flight was smooth all the way. We landed just before 1600 coming in over an all-white snowbound landscape.
Negotiating our way out of the airport was a doddle, no long queues at immigration and the baggage arrived at the carousel just as we did. We were met by the coach driver from Snæland Grimsson along with a few other travellers on the same trip. We were quickly whisked to the Centehotel Plaza and checked in for an overnight stay. It was happy hour as we arrived but being starving we walked across the road to find , of all things, a superb Pakistani Restaurant the Shalimar ( http://www.shalimar.is/en/#_=_ ) (that was not expected) where I had a Vindaloo and Marie a Kurma, not very adventurous but damned tasty . If you’re ever at the Shalimar ask for seating upstairs as you don’t want to be near the door in winter.
Friday 29th January Dawned cold and pretty windy. We met our guide Pètur Sigurðsson who turned out to be both knowledgeable and humorous . His deadpan wit would have many of us laughing over the next 3 days. Today the itinerary was the trio of natural wonders which make up the Golden Circle. Firstly the Thingvellir National Park, where Icelanders set up the 1st parliament just after the island was settled and where the North American and European tectonic plates drift apart at a rate of 2-6 cm per year. From Thingvellir we continue to Gullfoss waterfall - a double waterfall that tumbles 34 meters into a gorge in the Hvita river and then on to the Geysir geothermal fields where the active Strokkur geyser was erupting every 5 minutes or so – though the steam was being blown almost horizontal in the strong wind.
After lunch we continue to a farm that breeds Icelandic horses and grows tomatoes 24/7 365 days a year. Linda Karlsson spent time demonstrating the 6 gaits of the Icelandic horse, its history and special qualities. The Icelandic horse is extremely tough being the only farm animal that is outside all year round whatever the weather. We also found out that it was extremely friendly. The bloodline is very pure as it is forbidden to import horses and even horses taken out of Iceland for competition are nto allowed re-entry. After Linda’s equine demonstration the farm owner took us into the Tomato sheds where geothermal energy is used throughout the year to provide both heat and light and where Bumble Bees are imported from the Netherlands to pollinate the tomatoes. 4 Varieties were grown and all sold locally. Most importantly we were allowed to taste the produce – and to me it matched the best Mediterranean varieties. Whilst tasting we were invited to try the small bar and it was here that I made the great discovery that there are some truly excellent craft beers brewed in Iceland.
By now the weather was looking pretty foul outside with the strong wind blowing snow hard across the roads and with snow obscuring the sky so the drive to the Hotel Edda Vik for a two night stay was a little fraught though our driver Helgi proved to be more than capable. That evening we chatted to 2 other couples (Jeff and Anne plus Maureen and Bob) over dinner. The planned trip outside to try to catch the Aurora that night was canned due to the poor weather but that did at least provide a chance to try some more beer.
Saturday 30th January dawned clear and cold but with the wind having subsided entirely. We headed east, along the outwash plains of southern shore formed by the many sub glacial and often highly destructive eruptions of the fearsome Volcano Katla. By the remains of a bridge destroyed by the glacial run off caused by an eruption in 2010 we had a great view of the highest Mountain in Iceland, Hvannadalshnúkur , a pyramidal peak on the north-western rim of the summit crater of the Öræfajökull volcano . Hvannadalshnúkur rises from sea level to just under 7000 ft.
Around lunchtime we arrived at the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, a truly astounding natural wonderland where chunks of glacial ice tumble into the lake creating a visual spectacle of turquisee icebergs floating in the blue waters. The lagoon is filled with fish that drift in from the sea along with the tides and in the winter seals gather in large numbers at the mouth of the lagoon to catch the fish. On the shore of black volcanic sand breakers were glass clear icebergs.
On the way back to Vik we visited the glacier of the Skaftafell National Park, part of Vatnajokull National Park before going back to the hotel for a buffet dinner and then getting out again in the evening to try to see the Northern Lights. The Lights did show up that night, though faintly. A 30 second exposure at F4 and ISO 800 did capture some good shots though I made the error of leaving the CP filter on my lens so did not get the vivid colours shown in Pètur’s shots (below). After a couple of hours and with the temperature down to -7 we made our way back to the Hotel for a night cap and bed.
Sunday 31st January after breakfast and we were headed back west along the south coast to the black beaches of Reynisfjara near Vik, where fingers of basalt rock lie offshore showing remnants of a once extensive cliff line and the three rock stacks rising form the sea: Skessudrangar, Landdrangar and Langhamrar, which according to local folklore are not rocks at all but trolls turned to stone at sunrise. From here we wnet on the Skogafoss waterfall and onwards to Eyjafjallajokull Visitor Centre located at the foot of Eyjafjallajokull volcano – responsible for the grounding of European Air Traffic in 2010. The centre is operated by the family of Thorvaldseyri who have lived next to the glacier and active volcano for generations and there is now a short documentary shown here that is well worth watching. It was here that I bought myself my Eyjafjallajokull mug that would be my trip souvenir.
Next up was the picturesque Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, one of the most famous in Iceland where those who wish can walk behind the waterfall – though this was not an option today as the paths were seriously icy. From here it was a couple of hours to travel the famous Blue Lagoon before heading back to the capital and overnight back in the Centerhotel Plaza and back to Shalimar for dinner (you must try the Masala Nan) with Jeff, Ann, Bob, Maureen and our new Australian friends Cheryl and Doug Lang.
Monday 1 Feb with a 1630 departure we had the morning to explore Reykjavik on foot and the chance of some last minute souvenir shopping and coffee. A quick walk to the Cathedral was achieved before having to take the bus to the airport. There is plenty left to see in Reykjavik for next time and there will be a next time as I found Iceland a truly natural wonder. Next time I am going to take a month on a bike to circumnavigate this wonderful country on the ring road that goes around it. This will give access and time (and a bit of adventure) to see much more of what Iceland has to offer.
Thanks to Regent Holidays for a well organised and flawless trip and in Particular to our guide Pètur Sigurðsson