By Alison Smith
A schoolfriend recently turned 50 and, having commiserated with me when I hit the half century, she called in the return favour and asked me to go with her to Iceland to see the Aurora Borealis to fulfil the number 1 item on her freshly written bucket list. I thought 50 was still a bit young to be writing a bucket list, but, apparently in her case, it’s a long list, so better get cracking. Before I could say “ I’ll see if I can get time away from the office” she’d booked it and we were off.
I was totally in the dark as to what to expect, which was a fitting expectation as so are the Icelanders for most of the winter days. I’d never ventured further North than Scotland, preferring sunny climes, so Iceland was to be a new experience and I approached it with no pre-formed ideas except a few Google images of snowy landscapes, colourful wooden boarded houses and grey skies. I also have nothing whatsoever in the way of Icelandic weather gear so had to invest in a pair of the ugliest, but sturdiest, boots I’ve ever seen, lots of grungy looking layers from Bever outdoor shop (why is everything grey, black and beige?!) and a fleece-lined anorak! My application to Country File is in the post.
My friend Denise had it all sorted. She’d booked an organised holiday with flights, Hotel B&B, airport transfers and a trip to the Northern Lights included. Iceland is expensive and I heard from other travellers that this is the best way to go. We added one other organised guided tour to our itinerary as we were staying for 4 days but didn’t want to hire a car. All the trips and transfers were booked through Gray Line, who I would recommend as they were on time, efficient and the guides were great.
We stayed downtown in the Hotel Centre Plaza which was nicely situated for the bars, restaurants and shops. The main part of Reykjavik is quite small and easy to wander about and was perfectly safe. There are many good restaurants but it’s quite pricey. To give you an idea, we went to a restaurant called Laekjarbrekka (don’t ask me to pronounce it!) which was really good and offered some Icelandic specialities. We had the house cocktail, starters, mains, a bottle of red and a coffee for Kr. 26,540 which is about € 85 a head.
One tip. Avoid the Fermented Shark! On some menus it’s called “rotten shark” and that’s exactly what it is! Our tour guide warned us off it, telling us that part of the processing involved peeing over the salt in which it’s preserved. I have no idea if this was a wind up but we saw some in the market and it smelled of ammonia. Glad we didn’t choose that then! On one of the evenings we had a seafood buffet and I did try a bite of smoked Minky Whale, but it wasn’t my thing. There is plenty of seafood, fish and lamb on the menus, which we really enjoyed but there are also the usual burger places, pizzerias and steakhouses, so something to suit all tastes.
The main event for us was our trip to the middle of nowhere to try to get a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. Best time to see it is between 21.00 and 02.00 and you need to be in the middle of nowhere to get a good view. It has been seen from Reykjavik town centre but you have to be lucky. Last year was the best it’s been in years with clear sightings right in town and they say they expect the same this winter. We didn’t get dramatic green skies but we did see it and Denise left a happy girl. If you go to see the Aurora Borealis, which I recommend, I would take a flask of something warming, (hot tea, chocolate, whisky, vodka). You need it as you stand outside and watch the sky for an hour or so and it’s bitter cold at that time of night.
The main tourist trips are the Northern lights (nighttime excursion) The Golden Circle (all day) and The Blue Lagoon, but you can also walk/climb the glaciers, do a Jeep ice safari, or go whale watching. We didn’t get to the Blue Lagoon, but it’s down on my list for next time. We did a Golden Circle trip including two hours at the Fontana Spa. These are naturally heated pools and Icelandic steam saunas (one of which was too hot to sit in!) and the plunge pool to cool off is the lake! (…and yes, I went in!) The Golden circle tour also includes a trip into the Pingvellir National Park, where the Icelandic parliament Alpingi was established in 930 AD and where the tectonic plates of Europe and North America meet.
You also get to view the wonderful Gullfoss waterfall, if you make it in one piece walking on the sheet ice to the viewing platform, then on to see the Strokkur Geyser at Geysir (yes that’s where we get the word from). It splurts hot air about 15 metres into the air about every 8 minutes. The surrounding area is full of bubbling hot springs and geothermal activity which makes you very aware of the volcanic nature of Iceland. Ice and fire. Our tour guide on the Golden Circle told us of Iceland’s rather brutal history with most stories ending in a bloody execution. He also regaled us with Troll stories and described the colourful folklore. There are 13 Christmas Trolls with great names such as Sausage Stealer, Door Slammer and Spoon Licker, who cause mischief in the run up to Christmas. The Christmas tradition sounds a bit like the Dutch Sint with kids putting out their shoe hoping for a gift if they have been good but getting a raw potato if they have been naughty.
Iceland is stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful and feels very pure and unspoilt. It’s a great place for a long weekend, very calm and relaxed with really wonderful people. We had great weather with clear blue skies and crisp icy air. All the energy for heating and water is provided by the underground hot springs. This sometimes means the shower water smells a bit sulphurous and the air outside of Reykjavic has a bit of a “country” smell giving Denise and I a couple of “ was that you?” moments, but it’s not unpleasant, just different.
I’ll certainly go back and explore some more.
Hints and Tips
If you go in a more independent way and hire a car we were given some useful tips. The roads are good and well maintained but they are icy. Make sure you get a car with winter tyres with the little spikes on, which is allowed and necessary during the winter months. Black ice is not unusual but we didn’t slip at all during our travels, which makes me think that the locals have it sorted.
If you are travelling independently of an organised tour and are venturing into the wide unknown, there is a service available where you check in and tell where you are going and what time you expect to be back and when you return you log out. If you get stuck (car breakdown etc) and need help but find yourself stranded with no phone signal, the service will report you as missing when you don’t logout on time and send out a search party to the area where you said you’d be. Maybe good to know. I don’t know the name of it but I’m sure it’ll come up on Google.
There’s an iPhone app which allows you to make fab pictures of the Aurora Borealis. Apparently it sets the right aperture etc. I wish I’d have known about it before I went. The photos turn out better than the view from the naked eye!
Final tip. Take lots of layers and strong shoes with rubber or textured soles as it’s icy underfoot, even in Reykjavik. Bobble hats and anoraks are de rigueur in Iceland and I was grateful for my new gear.