“Tap water? Would you like a side of rotten eggs with that?”
As much as I love Iceland, I don’t think I could ever get on board with the mangy rotting sulphur smell that escapes from every tap and shower head.
It’s pretty hard to shower, with water cascading down your nose and mouth, and hold your breath at the same time to prevent inhaling the rotten egg smell. It involved me gasping like a goldfish for several seconds then holding my breath for as long as I could before I’d next need to inhale. But I didn’t let this put me off Iceland. It is a beautiful country brimming with out-of-this-world landscapes and burdened with an interesting history.
the land of ice and fire.
We booked to go to Iceland in late November for my 28th (gasp!) birthday. Unfortunately due to taking on a new job, planning and preparation went completely out the window. We found ourselves without much of a plan at all for our trip, mostly playing each day by ear.
My Icelandic adventure began as we were about to board our flight in London on a Saturday evening a few days before my birthday. In a slight panic at the airport bar — we had checked the Blue Lagoon website and realised it was fully booked for every single daytime slot — our only option seemingly was to book for that same evening. Our flight landed typically late, the airport shuttle was late and the car hire paperwork seemed to take forreevvveer. It seemed like our lagoon dreams might be cancelled but we managed to turn up with an hour and a half until closing time. Not ideal, but at least we were here.
The Blue Lagoon is a touch overrated. For approx. £58 each we had entry, mud masks, a free drink and the ability to borrow a towel. The option below this one, about £45, doesn’t even let you have a towel.
I should just mention that for the delightful price of ISK 53000 (~£380) you can have your own private changing room, access to an Exclusive Lounge, bathrobe, slippers and more, and walk away with a product gift set. Seriously, who actually pays that?!
at the BL.
It was dark. Stepping out from the changing area, pushing open that heavy door that leads outside, I felt my whole world turn to ice. I wandered forth in a bikini, bare skinned and bare footed, into the outside. Google told me later it was -2c, feeling like -8. Ahead of me in the darkness was a big pool, steaming in the cold, promising to envelope me in warm waters and readjust my core temperature. I’d never been so naked in weather this cold before.
Firstly, I was surprised how shallow the water was, and had to adopt an awkward crab crawl to ensure the least amount of skin was exposed to the icy whipping air. With our ‘Comfort’ entry, we had one free drink. However, locating the bar in the darkness whilst surrounded by steam was tricky. Thankfully I managed to find the Prosecco.
To ruin the atmosphere, loud sirens alert you 15 minutes before closing time. To escape the mad rush, we moved away from the entrance and found we had entire lagoon sections to ourselves. One further siren alerted us at actual closing, and we headed back to the changing rooms with the remaining revellers.
Despite the short time we had — and it denting our pockets so massively before we’d even started — it was a fun way to begin our adventure.
Getting back in the car (in a completely empty car park by now) we headed north towards our AirBnb in downtown Reykjavík.
first full day here.
Out the door by 9am on Sunday morning, we wandered the streets of the city in darkness. The snow glowed under the street lamps. We saw the President’s Palace – amazing, really, that it sits neatly in the middle of Reykjavík without any barbed wire or security.
A yummy breakfast filled our bellies at The Laundromat Cafe – a retro Scandinavian bar with real laundry machines in the basement. They offer a generous ‘Dirty Brunch’ which is a mix of fry-up and traditional continental foods.
Feeling full and ready for the day, we skipped out on the city and hopped in the car as the sun was really starting to break in the sky. We headed for the ring road, the main road that circles the island.
Upon booking this trip and reading what little I did about Iceland in winter, I was absolutely gutted to hear we’d have maximum four hours of light in a day. When thinking of our time in Iceland, we realised there would be little point in doing 6am wake-ups, as I would usually demand of a city break to make the most of the day, as we wouldn’t even be able to see anything for many hours after that. It made sense to drive during the dark but then we would miss out on the amazing scenery during said drive.
Luckily what Iceland did provide for us was three full days of sunshine that ensured we saw the maximum amount possible. Those clear days meant miles and miles of unburdened views across a snow-capped landscape. And the lack of light wasn’t even that bad – despite Google telling me sunrise would be at 10:39am, we were grateful that the sky was already getting light by half past 9. Due to the sun hovering so low in the sky, it casts a wonderful ‘golden hour’ glow that takes you through most of the day. Sunrise lasts hours, as does sunset.
on we go.
First impromptu stop of the day was a town called Selfoss, which sits on the river Ölfusá. I read after the fact that this river flows right into the Atlantic Ocean, but what made me stop was the fact it was a bright crystal blue and gushing madly as if it was chasing a waterfall.
I marvelled, whilst shivering, at the rapids and attempted to take some photos with shaking hands. The temperature gauge read -2, though ‘feels like’ -11. It was windy and we rushed to get back in the car.
A couple of hours on we drove past the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, where, honestly, we couldn’t work out what was volcano and what was just a boring old mountain (I guess they’re all volcanoes in hindsight, but Eyjafjallajökull is particularly significant as it is severely active and this was the same volcano that, in 2010, threw volcanic ash several kilometres into the air and it grounded most flights in Europe for a week).
Onwards south we went to our main destination, the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls. By the time we arrived at Skógafoss, it was already 2.00pm and we were losing light already. The waterfall was basked in a glorious warm sunset that made us feel better in the chilly wind.
We were able to see Skógafoss from the bottom and also from the top — there was an icy set of stairs to the side that allowed us to have incredible top-down views. Feeling peckish after our surprisingly difficult climb, I had an amazing leg of lamb at the touristy Skógafoss Bistro Bar (the yank had Arctic charr which was amazing).
Before we lost last light, we quickly hopped it down to Reynisfjara beach — a beach that is made up completely of black sand. Years and years and years ago(!) lava poured onto the coast from neighbouring volcanoes and hardened upon meeting the sea. Over time the wind has worried the lava rock down into tiny pebbles that look like grains of sand. Reynisfjara beach is backed with grey basalt columns that form a cool and very alluring cave.
Sadly, Reynisfjara has been in the news several times due to tourists drowning at sea here, despite all of the warning signs in the area. The waves that look so calm actually have a deadly undercurrent and have a habit of pulling unwitting people out to sea. A terribly sad story I read from 2007 involved a husband stopping to take photos of his family in front of the basalt columns. His back was to the sea and the tide swept in very fast with absolutely no warning. The current was so strong it simply pulled the sand out from underneath him like a trap door.
In a country whereby there are so many dangerous things around — waterfalls, glaciers, cliff edges — incredibly organic landmarks that naturally you’d take great care around because they aren’t everyday findings — you’d never expect the beautiful coast to be on this list of dangerous features too.
At this point, it was starting to get really dark. The wind was incredibly strong and getting worse. We forced our way through the tremendous gale to get back to the safety of our Rav4. “Where to next?” we said. We didn’t fancy driving all the way back to Reykjavík, a 3+ hour journey in the dark. Opening booking.com quickly on my phone, we booked up accommodation in the outskirts of a town called Kirkjubæjarklaustur, further up the ring road from us. Hotel Geirland was less than £100 for the night and had an onsite restaurant. Perfect.
We set an alarm for throughout the night in order to look for the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, we were far too tired to go back out in the car and go driving in search of them. After every alarm call, we sleepily looked out the window, then gratefully got back into the cosy bed, admitting lazy defeat.
We hit the road at 9.00am. It should’ve been earlier but when you wake up to pure blackness outside there is little motivation to get a move on. We slowly got ready for the outside frostiness and enjoyed a relaxed continental breakfast, waiting for the sun.
It was already 10.30am but we had the ring road to ourselves. We head towards Skaftafell Visitor Centre but soon realised that anything worthwhile seeing in the area would have to be reached on foot. We were crampon-less and so carried on the road a little further. A couple of miles on, we spotted a tiny side road that looked full of promise.
It was a cobbly road covered in icy potholes (thank goodness we’d paid for the highest possible insurance cover…) but we had one glacier to our left and another straight ahead of us. Parking up — there was only one other car around — we got out. In front of us was a frozen-over iceberg-filled lake at the base of an incredibly blue glacier.
This is Svínafellsjökull, a sub-glacier of the Vatnajökull glacier — the largest in the whole of Europe — and can be up to 1,000 metres thick. Supposedly this glacier is about the size of Yorkshire – just to help put that into perspective for fellow Brits! What is interesting is that underneath this glacier are many volcanoes that can erupt at any time.
[Fun fact: Vatnajökull has been used as a filming location for Game of Thrones in scenes beyond the wall.]
Moving onwards, we found a small trail that led us closer to the glacier. We had to scramble a bit over icy, unsteady rock. Closer and closer we got. There were some slippy ledges that I trembled over, carefully gripping the rock face on my left, but not wanting to dislodge anything. We ended up as far as we could go on this tiny trail — rewarded with gorgeous private glacial views on the other side.
It was a wonderful thing to see. And yet scary. Not really knowing what to expect from a glacier, it was hard to believe this giant chunk of Avatar-blue ice was moving. If it wasn’t for the constant cracking noise (that made me want to duck for cover every time) I would never have thought such a solid thing could be going anywhere at all. It was a phenomena that I couldn’t really take in or understand; whilst there I just saw a blue sheet of ice surrounded by mountains and thought “huh, that’s big”. Upon reading more about how glaciers move, I have far more appreciation for the terrifying position I had put myself in by standing anywhere near a glacier (y’know, just in case all of a sudden it came crashing down, even though it’s moving at less than 20cm per day).
On a serious note, the Svínafellsjökull glacier made the news in 2007 as two experienced hikers went missing in this exact area. The two Germans, experienced in snow walking and climbing, went off on foot over the glacier in the month of August. It is terrifying to think that two people can just go missing off the face of the earth. It is assumed that they fell down one of the many crevasses in the glacier — and this is just one of the many reasons that you should always go with a legitimate and experienced tour guide for any glacial walking. Iceland can be a dangerous place and so must be treated with respect and with caution.
Sun was properly rising now. We had glorious views of the pretty mountain peaks being bathed in soft pink as we left the glacier.
the golden circle.
It was time to head north towards our next stop, which was part of the Golden Circle. We pulled up at the Geysir Centre in the southern lowlands just after 4pm and the sun had already set. Luckily for us, the winter sunsets in Iceland tend to last for three hours. The surrounding iced mountains were painted in pink and orange, and as we approached the geyser area they became almost invisible due to the thick steam protruding from the many orifices in the ground. The whole area measures approximately 3km squared – a large area full of geothermal activity and the potential for exploding scalding water.
Strokkur, the mighty of the geysers, and the most popular, impressed us thoroughly. As it did those around us, who ventured closer and closer to ensure the best videos of the thing. Every few minutes it explodes upwards 100 feet — the water almost immediately turning to steam as it hits the ice-cold air. The steam heads off in the direction of the wind, being absorbed into nothing, before the whole process starts again.
There are several more hot springs and geysers in the area, but none as impressive. What’s amazing is that the geothermal areas are simply cordoned off with a rope less than two feet tall. If this were in America or England there would have probably been a three metre high wire fence around it. A natural geothermal geyser dealing with pressure from the earth’s core would suddenly look like a very man-made thing behind a wall of protection.
This is one thing Iceland does pretty well — it tries to keep every natural feature as natural as possible and hopes that people use their common sense.
We pulled into Reykjavík about 7.00pm, desperately in need of dinner. Pulling out my list of recommendations, we drove straight for Svarta Kaffið. Luckily we managed to find parking almost right outside — surely this would’ve been an impossibility in peak season.
Svarta Kaffið turned out to be a fantastic choice. They don’t have a menu — you simply have the choice of two different soups which are served in bread rolls. I opted for the chunky vegetable, basil and thyme soup, whilst the yank went for the slightly spicy sausage and chorizo. Both were amazing and we eagerly shared between us sips of each other’s. Being able to eat the bowl after was a bonus and I was totally full.
Being our last night in Iceland, we knew we needed to go off hunting for the Northern Lights. We had to at least try. We’d totally failed on night one of being in Iceland, being so tired. Night two we made a very, very poor attempt at looking for them (we didn’t look any further than our motel room’s window).
It was our last night.
So off we set, back into the car.
It was nearly 9.00pm. We weren’t quite sure where would be a good spot for viewing. So we simply drove. Heading back in the direction of the geysers, we figured that the whole area was pretty dark, devoid of light pollution, and would provide good opportunity for visibility. Unfortunately, we encountered an incredible snow storm on the way, unable to see more than a metre in front of us. Feeling incredibly out of our depth, we drove back to the calmness of Reykjavík — down to the Grótta Island Lighthouse in Seltjarnarnes, which is at the very western tip in a pretty and expensive looking neighbourhood.
We sat near this lighthouse, in our car, for about half an hour. Cars kept pulling up, coming and going, meaning there were constant headlights in the area, failing us in our mission for darkness. We knew our chances of seeing anything here were slim.
So we set off again in the car, this time heading south thinking it’d be less blizzardy. On the ring road, we’d just about crossed the border from the capital region to the southern region. The weather started getting bad again so we turned back again towards the city, despairing over the amount of fuel we were burning simply going back and forth and really not accomplishing anything.
It was 11.00pm.
Pressing my face to the window one more time, squinting through the flickering snow, I happened to notice a weird shaped cloud far behind us. It was a funky colour – like sour milk. And not wispy, like most clouds. It actually had a pretty defined blob-like shape. I suggested we pull over, but figured what I was looking at was pretty much nothing. It was milky white. Not the blinding green of the Aurora Borealis I’d seen in photos. We stopped in a layby on the side of the road. We looked up. Hmm.
Pulling at information in my memory, I vaguely recalled reading somewhere that the lights only look green via a slow shutter speed on a camera. I held up my Panasonic Lumix to the window. Holy shit! Before I’d even had a chance to take a photo, I’d noticed the sky looked a faint green through my LCD screen. I clicked the shutter quickly, disregarding the need for a steady hand amidst my excitement and within the LCD display was a blurry photo of a prominent, undeniably green light draped across the sky, like a curtain. Excitedly, I showed the yank.
Switching on the engine, we knew we needed to find a better place to stop the car. A few more minutes west on the ring road we pulled left down Blafjallavegur 1 and immediately came upon a car park just off that. It clearly was meant to be!
What happened over the next two hours will be something I’ll always query my sanity over. It’s been two weeks since our Iceland trip and I actually cannot remember what the Northern Lights look like. I’m not entirely sure it happened at all, but then the yank reminds me that, yes, we did in fact see them, and — wow — those photos on my camera are proof. I’m far from a good photographer, so I don’t have those amazing, awe-inspiring brilliant shots that you see across travel blogs — but what I do have are snapshots of a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime sight that I never expected for a second to actually see.
As time slipped on until midnight, I realised that I was watching the Northern Lights as it became my birthday. What an amazing gift.
[Just to note that all of the photos below are unedited. Totally raw files taken on a mediocre compact digital camera by a mediocre photographer — me.]
So, what can I tell you? To the naked eye, the Northern Lights mostly appear milky white. Not green. They can range from a small streak or slit, to actually blanketing the entire sky above your head, like a pale green ceiling. The most special thing we saw was an actual Aurora Borealis dance. Moving in a slinky-like way across from north to south, they shuddered and wiggled, like an equalizer on a DJ’s tech board. They mainly moved right to left, but then would bounce back again. At this point, they really were green. Still not the bright green as in the photos, but the shade of green tea. The shade of a Mojito with lime syrup (I’d not had much alcohol on this trip due to the severe cost of beverages — does it show?).
We stayed and watched the display, mesmerised, until about 1.00am when it had pretty much vanished over the hills to the south. It was tempting to chase it down, but we’d already been so so lucky seeing what we had and the clouds were coming over thick and fast, diminishing our chances. I didn’t think we’d be able to beat it, so we called it a night. Two hours of lights. We’d seen an amazing thing. Better than we ever could have imagined.
third and final day. my birthday.
Several blocks down from our AirBnB was a restaurant called Bergsson Mathús. TripAdvisor tells us this is rated the best breakfast in Reykjavík. Honestly, I think it was the best breakfast I’ve ever had anywhere in my travels.
The yank opted for his usual fry-up, with bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, sausages and beans. As a standard, Icelandic fry-ups seem to always come with a Continental side of cheese, muesli, yoghurt and fruit. I sampled plenty of his breakfast to his delight…(!). I went for sourdough toast topped with smoked salmon and mashed avocado — a very generous serving too. The sourdough bread was some of the finest I’ve ever tasted, so I went over to ask if I could buy more, and they happily just gave me almost half a loaf for free! (and it was warm out of the oven, *drool*). Thanks for making my birthday awesome, Bergsson Mathús.
The next three hours before our departure were spent exploring the city’s streets for the first time (seriously, we paid for a three night stay in Reykjavík and yet this was the first time we actually went into Reykjavík properly). We went to the tip of the Hallgrimskirkja — a very modern church with incredible views, photographed many of the infamous pieces of graffiti from various street artists, visited the totally frozen-over Tjörnin lake and watched the swans and geese, took a short walk along the coast and finished up grabbing some delicious cinnamon buns from Brauð & Co, still warm from the oven.
It was 1.00pm and time to go back to the airport.
Obviously in hindsight, three days is definitely not enough time to spend in the land of Ice and Fire. We didn’t see all of the other parts of the Golden Circle. We didn’t see Iceland’s tallest waterfall. We didn’t see the chaotic plane wreckage on Sólheimasandur beach. We didn’t try any other thermal pools. And these are only things down south. The north of Iceland is meant to be even more incredible — but was just unfortunately too far to travel for our short time there.
We’ll be back in spring for longer.
To be continued…