life travel

Iceland: November, 2013

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I should start by saying, I loved Iceland. However, there were a number of disappointments, and we were thwarted by the weather – we didn’t see the Northern Lights – but it’s such a beautiful special place, that even with that I still really enjoyed it.

Common belief is that Iceland is extremely expensive, but the exchange rate is dramatically lower than it was. We found prices to be comparable to prices in the UK or Australia.

We arranged our trip through Inntravel, but I think we would have been better to book ourselves and arrange tours at the hotel. The one tour they booked us on was with a great tour company (lovely guides), but ended up being 6+ hours in a bus with the windows iced over, for less than 90 minutes of glacier walking, and the weather was not conducive to seeing the lights. The glacier walking was cool, but the amount of time we spent on the bus, unable to see anything out the windows even, wasn’t the greatest. It would have been worth it if we’d seen the lights… but we didn’t.

Day 1

We flew Iceland Air from Heathrow, not a lot of airlines fly to Iceland and other options are Wow Air (the Icelandic budget airline), and Easyjet (nothing would induce me). We flew into Keflavik International Airport, which is about an hour from Reykjavik. There is a bus service into Reykjavik from the airport, which can take you direct to your hotel – with wifi all the way (awesome). This is the biggest tour company, so you could take all your tours with them, but we preferred to book with the smaller companies.

We stayed at the Hótel Óðinsvé, which was lovely. Comfortable beds (and they have single rooms, which is nice), nice breakfasts (ask for a teapot, the mugs are tiny) and the staff were really lovely, so helpful. We got in relatively late and we were pretty tired, so we just went to Café Paris for dinner, which was lovely.

 Day 2

All day in Reykjavik – we started the day with a walk to the waterfront, where the famous Sun Voyager sculpture is. Walking around and up, past the hot springs where people used to do laundry, and through the Botanical gardens. Not the most scenic of routes but still charming! Lunch at Café Babalú (meh), and then a trip up the Hallgrímskirkjuturn (the tall Cathedral that can be seen from most parts of Reykjavik). From the top, you can see incredible views of the city. Unfortunately, we walked into the building from blue skies outside… and by the time we got to the top of the tower, there were grey clouds, driving wind, and snow/hail. We waited around for a while, decided to leave, walked out to clearer skies… and went back up again. This is Icelandic weather!

We finished with a trip to the local swimming pool, Sundhöll Reykjavíkur, which was nice. Very clean, and a nice big pool. I got some laps in before hanging out in the hot tub for a bit. It’s the hot springs water that is supposed to be great for your skin, and entry was maybe $10 for 3 people – so much cheaper than many of the tourist traps! And less than 10 minutes walk away from the hotel – win. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant, Snaps, which was nice (fish and meat heavy, like most local food in Reykjavik though).

Day 3

We are off on our pre-booked trip, we’ll be glacier walking, seeing a waterfall, and if we are lucky, the Northern Lights.

I gave the ending away earlier, we weren’t lucky.

The bus is cold and the windows coated in ice, so we don’t really get to see much of the scenery on-route. This isn’t a huge issue for me as I have a habit of falling asleep in any moving vehicle, but it would have been nice to see stuff en-route! We stop briefly to see the farm where the first picture of the 2010 volcano was taken.

Our guide is full of stories, and talks whilst he drives most of the time. He explains the Icelandic naming system to us, and also the winner of the most beautiful word in Icelandic. He also told us the myth of Katla (slightly different version). Along with lots of information about living in Iceland, where it’s a question not of if the volcano will erupt, but when.

The glacier was beautiful, and using crampons I found to be pretty easy. We walked up, and around, and then down. There is a light dusting of snow, but underneath it is sheet ice (hence, crampons). You have to keep to the path, because there are random holes and crevices  all over, and you don’t know how thick the snow is – if you end up falling down an icy hole, you are going to have a bad time.

Afterwards, we had a brief stop at a Folk History Museum (I was too tired to appreciate it), and dinner at Hotel Anna. The hotel is named for, and has an exhibition about, Sigríður Anna Jónsdóttir, who has a great biography, of a life in pursuit of learning and adventure.

Then, we went to a waterfall which is lit up at night. It was incredibly beautiful, but so very cold! The weather was too cloudy for there to be any hope of seeing the Northern Lights, so we just had a long drive back to Reykjavik.

Day 4

We are planning to take a helicopter ride later (over sunset), to see some of the fascinating geological features that abound in Iceland. So the morning is a good time to go shopping, and there are lovely little shops will many gorgeous things created by local designers. I buy a beautiful hat, two necklaces, and two bracelets – including one that is the first piece the designer has sold from that collection – and a wonderful ceramic lamp. We have lunch at the Laundromat Cafe (good sweet potato).

Out helicopter trip has to be cancelled due to poor weather, which is disappointing, especially as we planned our whole day around it. Instead, we head to the Blue Lagoon. It’s a tourist staple, and as it’s located near the airport good for a visit immediately after arriving, or before leaving (they have a left luggage area for this). My dad got the standard experience, whist my mom and I opted to be pampered with the luxury experience. I thought this would be good as we were a little short on time, but it was really the opposite. Still lovely though! We had to wait a while for our host to show us to our private changing room, and then after we were changed we had to wait again, but once we were in, it was delightful. There’s a small private pool, and then you exit out into the main area. In the spirit of research, I swam/walked/crawled around the circumference, and then across and back. Temperatures varied, and it truly is a massive place. We applied the silica mask to our faces (my dad, for reasons known only to himself, applied it to his hair – not a particularly successful experiment, and one I don’t recommend) and relaxed. Best to find a sheltered spot for this, the cold mask and the cold wind gave me a headache! Then we went back to the private pool, where our host bought us drinks, and a lava mask and an algae mask (lava mask first, it’s exfoliating). Afterwards, we had dinner at Lava (the Blue Lagoon restaurant), which I wasn’t super excited about as the ratings were pretty low, but was in fact fantastic. Especially the cheesecake, which I photographed.

We headed out for our Northern Lights Tour, and spend 4 and a half hours on a bus trying to find clear skies only to find… no activity. So disappointing. Apparently it was the first night in days that there was even a chance of seeing any, so I could stop beating myself up about not trying to go and see them day 1! But still really disappointing. Apparently one of the groups out (the last one in) saw some, but it was just a tiny flicker.

Day 5

This is the day we are going on the Golden Circle Tour – it’s really popular, and features many of the most incredible sights of Iceland. Most tour companies have one. I’m not going to say which tour company we had, because we had the worst tour guide I have ever had. He opened with some light misogyny, took us into a church and preached at us, and also made some homophobic remarks. I was livid. Especially as the part of the point of the break I was on is a break from the misogyny of the tech industry!

Anyway, such is the spectacular beauty of Iceland, that this guy couldn’t completely ruin it. Thankfully he was also too lazy to actually come with us and talk about things (well, except the Church) so mostly we were left to our own devices.

We went to a national park, saw where the European and American tectonic plates met, an incredible waterfall, and a geyser. I was standing right next to it when it blew, on a patch of ice, and wow it made me jump!

Day 6

Our last day, well morning. We had rescheduled our helicopter ride, but once again the weather was too bad to take it. Instead, we walked down to the harbour, where we watched some sailors practise emergency rescues. It was amazing – all these men in orange suits swimming attached together, and climbing into what looked like a floating tent. There’s an area nearby with information about boat disasters, which was also interesting.

I headed to the Reykjavik Art Museum, which was small but had some interesting things. I really liked the section of work by Erró and the Zilvinas Kempinas exhibit, Fountains (fans and magnetic tape). I think I saw one of his other exhibits in Melbourne, which transfixed me.

After that, time’s up! Back to the Airport, and to London.


Suggestions for travel to Iceland (in winter)

  • Book more time than you think you need (the weather will thwart you).
  • Take a drivers license (if you have one) so you can quad bike/skidoo. Long story – I currently do not have one.
  • Don’t book X and Northern Lights tours – just book a Northern Lights tour, if possible the night you arrive. They don’t go out every night, only when there is a chance of seeing them and if you don’t see the lights, you can go again for free (and get a 3 year voucher if you don’t get lucky). If it’s a combination tour you might end up out late for nothing.
  • All tourists are entitled to Tax Free shopping, so make sure you get a tax receipt if you buy anything.
  • The hotels book tours for you, and have lots of recommendations, so don’t worry about scheduling things in advance.

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