Iceland – the Land of Fire and Ice. Where rainbows live in waterfalls…
Hot pools bubble and mountains rumble…
Northern Lights beckon…
And locals don’t deny the existence of elves. They live in the lava…
‘We started the year with hot volcanoes so let’s end it with cold volcanoes,’ said John as we booked a holiday to celebrate the first year anniversary of when we met. He was referring to our trip to Lanzarote in spring and now Iceland waited for us in autumn.
A place of incredible natural wonder, I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland, which John knew. So one night he stayed up till 1am to surprise me with an Icelandic adventure in two parts. First, we would explore Reykjavik, a city of art and literature, and then we would discover Iceland, a country of snow-capped volcanoes and frost-covered lava fields.
We stayed at the Grand Hotel on the outskirts of the city and a brisk 20-minute walk to the centre, although it took longer as we dawdled taking photographs on the sea front…
Reykjavik is a sprawling city of beguiling beauty – historic and modern at the same time with colourful old houses and art deco buildings overlooked by Mt Esja and surrounded by the cold blue sea.
There are so many things to do and so much stuff to see that we were lucky to have our own guide, Hjalmar – an Icelandic beekeeper, show us around his city for the afternoon. And there were a few gems that we stumbled upon ourselves, including…
The Sun Voyager – a hauntingly beautiful sculpture of a Viking ship facing the sea. The sculptor, Jón Gunnar Árnason, created the monument to remind Icelanders of their Viking heritage.
The Old Harbor – where you’ll find ships, whale watching, Northern Lights tours, restaurants serving fruits of the sea, and a friendly atmosphere.
Perlan – Reykjavik’s most futuristic building, and home to the Saga Museum, built on four rotating cylinders with a 360-degree viewing platform that provided panoramic views of the city. I loved this beautiful sun dial.
The iconic white tower is Hallgrímskirkja – the church named after Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson. It was designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson to symbolise the flowing basalt lava fields of Iceland.
Harpa – Iceland’s biggest concert hall where a recital of Rachmaninoff was playing when we took a look inside.
We walked the circular route around the expansive suburbs of rivers and parks, past pretty residential areas to the lake near the town centre. Sunset is striking in Reykjavik.
And as night falls fast and freezes, the mirror-like Harpa building is lit by multi-coloured lights. John thought it reflected the Northern Lights.
Mid-week we woke up excited to start part two of our Icelandic adventures – from eclectic city break to exploring a strange volcanic wilderness of moss-and-lichen covered rocks with thermal vents of steam rising into the icy air.
We left the luxury of the Grand Hotel to meet our Explore group at Keflavik airport. There was some time to get to know our fellow Explorers before our itinerary started with a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Can you imagine a place so magical that it’s indescribable? This, for me, is the Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa pooling into the heart of a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, south-western Iceland. The warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur – you can smell the sulphur – to which the lagoon is attributed healing powers for skin diseases like psoriasis. I don’t know about that, but I do know my skin has never felt so soft and silky from head to toe after swimming in the Blue Lagoon.
Magical is one word to describe the Blue Lagoon. Otherworldly is another. ‘It’s like we’re in a science fiction movie,’ said John, as we swam in the hot steaming pools. We were surrounded by a weird volcanic landscape like something out Prometheus, which incidentally filmed the alien world on location in Iceland. I can’t describe anything more romantic than swimming in the mist-covered Blue Lagoon as the setting sun caught the sky on fire and cast a red-and-orange glow across the blue waters.
The Blue Lagoon was a highlight of our holiday, but even better was yet to come.
Hjalmar had warned us of winds from the ‘Northern Pole’ arriving later in the week, and they did. A snow storm blew in as we set off to discover the Golden Circle – one of Iceland’s most popular tours.
Our guide was an Icelander named Valli (I think, at least it was pronounced ‘valley’), and a true bard. Valli was quite kooky, like many Icelanders – I like them! She told and sung us the story of Iceland on our journey – an Icelandic folk song, Christmas carols and the national anthem as we drove past dark serpentine rivers and snowy mountain ranges.
‘Iceland is the youngest country in the world,’ Valli told us. Geologically speaking. And it is still growing, forming, changing. Our Golden Circle tour encompassed the natural wonders of a country newly emerged from volcanoes and glaciers as it continued to evolve. The land is torn and ravaged by sharp ravines, rift valleys, deep gorges and spouting geysers.
At times it was far too snowy and windy for my DSLR to capture, so this was when John’s automatic was very handy.
We were travelling in the company of a great Explore group and the blizzard made the day very atmospheric, but Valli had an extra surprise in store. For 200 ISK, or about 70p, we could experience an earthquake 6,3 on the Richter scale.
In 2008 there was a 6,3 earthquake under Mt. Ingólfsfjall – Valli remembers it well – that hit in Hveragerði, Selfoss. Today there is an exhibition of the earthquake – the opening in the earth is covered by glass and an earthquake simulator stands nearby! This is kooky Icelandic humour at work, I think. Valli smiled knowingly as we walked into the shed (earthquake simulator) and walked out shaken (literally) by the experience.
Our fellow Explorers and Valli made the Golden Circle tour lots of fun, but the best day ever was still to come.
The untamed shores of Southern Iceland have black sand beaches, troublesome volcanoes, waterfalls bursting out of mountain sides and ice caves sculpted in glaciers. Our trip to the coast was met with the return of the sun and scenes so awesome and dazzling that no one could put down their camera.
You may recognise the popular tourist spot below – the unpronounceable volcano that Icelanders fondly call the ‘problem child’. Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 spewing ash clouds that caused havoc to air travel across Europe.
However, this is just a baby volcano. Icelanders are waiting for Katla.
The surrounding area of Eyjafjallajökull is covered in volcanic ash. ‘Please take a bag,’ said our guide and bus driver. ‘We have plenty. No really, take away as much as you want.’
We were so lucky that the weather had changed again, because without the sun we would not have seen the famous rainbows in waterfalls. John joked that I had the biggest smile stuck to my face, but I have never seen anything like this. This is actually real…
Iceland is magical. Where else could I walk to the end of a rainbow?
A sense of wonder? Wow.
And the day just got better. We went ice climbing on a glacier…
Walked across beaches with alien black sand…
And roamed behind thundering waterfalls…
And did we find the elusive Northern Lights? They took some hunting down…
And more than a few nights searching. Lucky that John had booked us extra time on our tour so that we could try one more time…
A week had sped past and as our plane flew away from the Land of Fire and Ice, I thought of how many dreams had come true.
I hope you get to go to Iceland too.
Food and drink – there are lots of excellent restaurants in downtown Reykjavik. Is it expensive? I’d say central London prices. And I particularly recommend eating at the Laundromat.
Next post 23 November: back to the bees!