The Land of Fire & Ice
A visit to Iceland (the country, not the retailer) is on most peoples bucket list and it’s no surprise as Iceland is a geological wonder. Our trip was scheduled as a direct result of having our Florida trip cancelled due to Hurricane Matthew. We picked up a deal from Wowcher (not recommended) and travelled to Reykjavík for 2 nights. The way the flights worked out we had virtually 3 full days, which to do the trips we wanted to do was perfect. An extra night would have been good, but as a very expensive country be careful when budgeting. The exchange rate was around 140 Icelandic Krona to 1 British Pound, which makes the mental conversion tricky (well, for me anyway), but most items you will be buying are 45-55% more expensive than in the UK. For example, 500ml of domestic beer was a minimum of 1,000 Krona, which is over £7 and in some places it was nearer £10 a pint.
On arrival, the only real option to get from the airport into Reykjavík is via a coach company, with Gray Line being the largest and the one we would recommend. The journey is only 45 minutes and the views are jaw dropping as the landscape is so far removed from anything you see in daily life. After dropping off the bags at our hotel, we wandered into the centre of town for food, a beer and some sightseeing.
Reykjavík is reportedly famous for its weekend nightlife. However, Icelanders tend to go out late, so bars that look rather quiet can fill up suddenly, usually after midnight on a weekend. As already mentioned, alcohol is very expensive in the bars, with people tending to drink at home before going out. Actually, beer was banned in Iceland until 1 March 1989, but has since become popular among many Icelanders as their alcoholic drink of choice. As a result, there are over 100 different bars and clubs in Reykjavík, with most of them are located on Laugavegur and its side streets.
The two highlights of our afternoon was finding Reykjavíkurtjörnin, a small lake located in downtown Reykjavík which had frozen solid, and stumbling across another Hard Rock Café. There were a few people walking on the frozen lake, so we decided to give it a bash. After leaving the safety of the bank and literally only 3 or 4 baby steps, I heard a loud and very concerning creaking noise. Assuming that my bulk was far too great for the ice, I shot off the ice faster than I ever moved while playing rugby in my youth! Following the realisation that there were bigger people already on the ice, plus some reassuring words from Amanda (including “stop being a wimp”) we set off once again. We made it safely to the island in the centre of the lake, took some great photos and finished the traverse to the opposite side without further incident. The beer and cocktails at the nearby Hard Rock Café were very welcome after our exertions and we both laughed about what we had just done. As we left, we collected another Hurricane glass to add to the ever growing collection.
Our evening excursion was a Gray Line coach trip out of Reykjavík in an attempt to see the famous Northern Lights. It proved to be a very long night, with the tour guides constantly assessing the night sky conditions, debating the best direction to drive and keeping our hopes high that we may get to see them before heading to bed. In the end, we never got even a glimpse of them, as the cloud cover was too dense and we didn’t find even a patch of clear sky. We learnt a lot though and the tour guide we had was very entertaining. To prove we were listening (and can use Wikipedia), the Northern Lights (or officially the Aurora Borealis) is a natural light display in the night sky, predominantly seen in the high latitude Arctic regions. Auroras are produced when the magnetosphere is sufficiently disturbed by the solar wind. We made it to bed in the early hours, with nothing to show for hours of driving around Iceland, apart from the reassurance that we could have another attempt for free at any point within the next two years.
Another snippet of information we gained from our 6 hour coach trip is that Iceland has a population of 330,000, which makes it one of the least densely populated countries in the world, with just 8 people per square mile. Even more remarkable is the fact that nearly two thirds of the total population resides in and around Reykjavík. In comparison, Macau (China) is the most densely populated country (well, technically an autonomous territory) at 55,000 people per square mile.
Day 2 dawned and we were collected from the hotel by the Gray Line shuttle bus for another coach trip. Today was the Golden Circle tour and was to be an all-day trip. The first stop was Thingvellir National Park, with its stunning landscapes and a stroll in the snow to take some photos. On route to the second stop we crossed two continents; from North America into Europe. Geologically, Iceland is part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a ridge along which the oceanic crust spreads and forms new oceanic crust. The ridge marks the boundary between the Eurasian and North American Plates, with Iceland being created by rifting and accretion through volcanism along the ridge. This location means that the island is highly geologically active with many volcanoes, notably Hekla, Eldgjá, Herðubreið and Eldfell. Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the place where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia split and drift apart by 2.5 cm per year. It’s amazing to think that Iceland, as a country, is growing larger every year. Next up was Gullfoss, or Golden Falls. It is a massive waterfall located in the canyon of the Hvítá River in southwest Iceland. It flows down into a wide curved three-step ‘staircase’ and then abruptly plunges, in two stages, into a crevice 32 metres deep. For those people that love landscape photography, this is an amazing opportunity to fire off plenty of stunning shots. Following superb meat stew soup for lunch the coach took us to Geysir. Here we witnessed one of the world’s most reliable fountain geyser, Strokkur hot spring, which blasts out a column of super-heated water up to 20 metres into the air every 4-8 minutes. It was simply beautiful, although the walk was a little tricky as the constant stream of tourists had turned the thin layer of snow into sheet ice.
Our final day in Iceland featured a trip to the Blue Lagoon ahead of travelling to the airport for the flight home. The lagoon is man-made and is fed by the water output from the nearby geothermal power plant Svartsengi and is renewed every two days. Superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity. The steam and hot water passes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal water heating system, then the water is fed into the lagoon for recreational and medicinal users to bathe in. The waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur, with a water temperature in the lagoon of 37-39°C. With the air temperature being in single figures, the transition from the changing rooms to the lagoon is fresh to say the least, but once submerged to neck height in the lagoon the whole experience was brilliant, if a little surreal. We enjoyed cleansing mineral face masks and even got a beer from a bar located on the side of the lagoon.
Iceland is nothing like anything we’ve visited before and, although only a short visit, it has to form part of any worldwide adventure. To be honest, it is hard to find words that suitably describe the variety of sights and, although a little pricey, we would highly recommend it. In terms of the Northern Lights, we were unlucky, but we’ll search them out at some point, although maybe in another Arctic Circle country rather than heading back to Iceland.