Tried & Tested: Iceland8.08.17 | Nicola Brereton
Iceland; having sold it for many years my preconceived idea was purely a Reykjavik city break, with a trip to the Blue Lagoon and an opportunity to see the Northern Lights. I imagined it to be quite barren with not much to do or see, how wrong could I be.
As soon as our plane descended into Keflavik airport the view that unfolded was simply stunning. Our first taste of this amazing island had begun and it certainly was not about to disappoint. Leaving the airport we were met with the most beautiful houses dotted along the vast coastal line, all individually built in striking colours that complement the surrounding areas. Immediately we were captivated by the stories of the first Viking settlers and how they sent a prayer up to their God to guide them to a new land, threw a log into the sea and followed it along the coastline. The log was then carried around the coast, finally coming ashore in a bay with what appeared to be smoke. They called this new town Reykjavik, Nordic for bay of smoke. The smoke they could see was, in fact, the steam rising from the hot springs.
After an hour’s drive we arrived in the beautiful city of Reykjavik. The main area is made up of Scandinavian style white-washed and colour washed wooden buildings full of character and lots of style. Although the drive in gives the impression of a sprawling city, the main part of Reykjavik itself feels quite peaceful. Most visitors and locals alike can be found along the many cafés and bars of Laugavegur, passing the time listening to buskers, while drinking an Icelandic coffee and people watching. From here the main shopping area can be found, although not many European recognisable shops are here however this is slowly but surely changing, giving Reykjavik a whole new ‘cosmopolitan’ vibe.
Our home 3 nights was the beautiful landmark Hotel Borg. Dignified and imposing, Hotel Borg overlooks the beautiful square of Austurvöllur, in the heart of Reykjavík, across from Althingi, the Icelandic parliament and the cathedral and just a five-minute walk from the harbour front. Our first night in Reykjavik was to be an exciting one. After a quick freshen up we were to set off on the hunt for the Northern Lights. Our transport for the evening was an amazing minibus, modified with huge wheels, we soon understood the benefit of the wheels! Having left behind the bright lights of Reykjavik, we headed out into the north of the city into the hills, with nothing more than the moon and stars to guide us. Before long we were driving along an open field (completely oblivious to the lack of road surface due to the size of the wheels) with nothing around us but open skies and a beautiful salmon river, lit only by the clearest moon and stars I have ever seen we eventually came to a stop. As our guide Simms told us about the legends of this natural phenomenon as well as showing us all how to adapt our cameras to get the best possible pictures, we waited in earnest to see this night time extravaganza unfold. We were told how the lights were tracked in years gone by and how technology has now made this much simpler – god bless smartphones! To keep us warm in the cool air we were offered some internal heating – Icelandic Vodka to you and me – or the simpler alternative of lovely warming hot chocolate.
With no luck in our current location, we soon had word the Northern Lights had been spotted further up the mountains so off we raced – with hot chocolate still in hand. Other guides were giving us updates over the radio, the excitement was building and before long we came to a stop on a deserted road. As we piled out once more with cameras at the ready we found ourselves once again in the most stunning surroundings. The area was so beautiful I don’t think any of us cared too much now about the lights, we were so engrossed in the drama of chasing them and the amazing places we found ourselves in, the sheer excitement of it all kept us thoroughly entertained. After a number of hours of chasing, tiredness finally took over and it was a very sleepy group that eventually returned back to our hotel having had an amazing evening.
Bright and early the following morning we set off on the Golden Circle tour of Iceland and were again greeted by the fantastic sight of our 3 superjeeps. These Land Rover Discoveries are shipped over to Iceland and modified locally with not just the massive wheels but also all the latest technology and comfort you could hope for, costing nearly as much as the original cars. Having been gently eased into the capabilities of the jeeps we headed up into the hills overlooking Reykjavik to witness the amazing panoramic view of this beautiful city and its coastal line. Our ‘easing in gently’ period was well and truly over as we set off back down the mountain in full-on off-roading mode. We screamed, we laughed, we had the best fun – little did we know this was a test to see if we could cope with what was to come!
It was time for a little detour from the itinerary and we set off through the most stunning land I have ever seen. We passed so many amazing spots from mountain tops with stunning views, beautiful waterfalls and lakes so clear the reflections appeared as mirrors, all the while being entertained by our fantastic driver Jakob (Jakob Bond!). His pride of the island and his extensive knowledge of its history, as well as his wicked sense of humour, kept us entertained throughout. Our first main stop was the stunning Gullfoss waterfall, considered by many to be the queen of Icelandic waterfalls as it stumbles dramatically into a deep gorge.
Having enjoyed an Icelandic lamb soup (think more along the lines of a traditional stew but very tasty) we set off towards the Langjökull glacier but not before some more adrenaline filled off-roading – my fear of water was soon forgotten as we raced through rivers and back up steep river banks! The drive up to the glacier is like something out of a sci-fi movie as the land around it gets more and more lunar-like. I knew the glacier would be amazing but I was in for a shock; it was absolutely awesome, the complete highlight of the day! More off-roading down to the glacier – hence the test earlier that morning – and before long, having let down the air of the huge tyres we were driving on the glacier. The true magnitude of this is hard to explain, around were deep crevasses that Jakob explained were caused by small eruptions of the volcano that lay beneath, as far as the eye could see was an ocean of ice – truly amazing! We took our first tentative steps onto the ice, again accompanied by the now familiar sounds of the day – our squealings of delight – in what can only be described as ‘Bambi on ice’. Having gained our ice legs and wearing enough layers to attack the Antarctic there was only one thing for it; an ice cold beer!
We headed back into the jeeps, and whilst still taking in this truly magical place we headed off once more towards the Geysir Hot Springs in Selfoss. As we approached them I couldn’t help but think they reminded me of the Hobbit movies with small pillars of smoke rising from the hills. As we got near the smell of sulphur began to linger, but it wasn’t too off-putting. The Geysir’s in all different sizes, were a sight to behold. There were lots of little ‘baby’ Geysirs dotted around the landscape with a few larger Geysirs mixed up that go off periodically, along with the eerie blue algae. The daddy of the group, however, has to be Strokkur who spouts with great frequency. As we stood around waiting, camera in hand the tension builds and builds, all eyes staring at the Geysir waiting for it to erupt. Seconds tick by as we stare avidly at the bubbling water and feel the heat from the steam rising, then out of nowhere he explodes high up into the air, hot spring water gushing up at force then showering the surrounding area (having cooled down). Stand too near and you may get a little wet – but it’s all part of the fun.
A quick respite and we are back in our superjeeps and heading off towards Thingvellir National Park where the Icelandic parliament was founded over 1000 years ago. Once again Jakob explained how the earth is ever so slowly pulling apart along the North-America and Eurasian tectonic plates, it may be worth adding at this point he was due to sit a geography exam in 2 days! Although it is not viable from land level, experienced snorkellers can swim to the Silfra fissure which is part of the Mid-Atlantic ridge and experience swimming between the two continents. For us, however, it was dry land, stunning scenery, fascinating history and a steaming cup of hot chocolate as we took it all in; although I’m not too sure I believe in the giant trolls that roam the land.
As we continued to walk through this beautiful area Jakob continued to enthrall us with tales of Viking settlers and their thirst for blood – they really were scary warriors! After a short walk we eventually came to stand at the point where the Viking settlers stood centuries ago to edict national laws. A rift valley with its high cliffs and an amazing backdrop for the parliamentary assembly known as Albing. This was held annually from around 930 AD to 1798.
The drive back to Reykjavik was a very subdued affair with 3 exhausted but happy passengers – this time we stayed on normal roads. The following day we were all raring to go on another day full of adventures as we headed to the south of the island. Our superjeep drivers were there to meet us and after a quick stop at a few tourist sights we once again headed off the main road and found ourselves in what is known locally as the land of a thousand waters. Once again we were having the best off-roading through rivers and up embankments – these guys know what they are doing and make sure every second is as exhilarating as the last. After a beautiful and scenic drive we arrived at the Hotel Ranga. Set back from the main road and on the banks of a beautiful Salmon river, it has the feel of an isolated hotel with the most amazing views of the Northern Lights
After a beautiful lunch we set off once again for the stunning Skogafoss and waterfalls. After a short (and not too difficult) climb, we found ourselves on a footpath that leads behind this amazing waterfall – a photo opportunity if ever there was one. Having taken in the beauty of the surrounding panoramic view we set off once more, passing more and more volcanoes and stunning waterfalls until we arrived at a sight that truly was to behold; a black sand beach! With the blue/grey water of the Atlantic crashing on the shoreline and the giant volcanoes behind us, the stark contrast of the black sand was a truly incredible sight. Once again our intrepid drivers decided a little more off-roading was the order of the day and proceeded to charge around the deserted ocean edge in an exhilarating and thrilling experience that again had us all squealing in delight.
From the oceanfront we drove the short distance to Seljalandsfoss falls, yet again a spectacular falls set in beautiful surroundings, this truly is an amazing and contrasting country that will have the most uninspired traveller gasping at its sheer beauty. After a long and thrilling day we set off back to Reykjavik, passing through beautiful little villages and vast open spaces with amazing mountain backdrops. On our return to Reykjavik we took the opportunity to wander around the city once more and take in the incredible Hallgrímskirkja church, situated in the centre of the city, it is one of the best-known landmarks and is visible throughout Reykjavik. We made our way back whilst doing a little window shopping along Laugavegur before heading out to dinner at the fabulous Grillmarket, where I was even tempted to try the local delicacy of minke whale (tastes just like beef). The food and atmosphere was so amazing we were offered the chance to go back out to look for the Northern Lights once more, but we all agreed we had such an amazing time we really did not feel like we were missing out, so instead we enjoyed more of Iceland’s amazing wine.
Our last morning in Iceland gave us one final opportunity for last minute shopping before we set off for the Blue Lagoon. Just 15 minutes drive from the airport it’s very easy to do en-route and is fully equipped with luggage storage facilities, plenty of showers and hair dryers in abundance (we ladies have to look our best for the flight home). Although it was cold outside we soon stepped into the warm soothing waters that are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur and bathing in the Blue Lagoon is reputed to help with skin conditions. For us though it was all about the relaxation and boy did we relax! Obligatory face mask applied from the face mask bar we set about enjoying our last few hours in this wonderful country that just never ceases to amaze. Our full-on itinerary from our arrival had not left much time to relax but we were certainly making up for it now and after a number of very relaxed and chilled hours we showered and changed ready for our journey home. After a short drive to the airport and a quick and easy check-in we were airside before we knew it and as we all reflected on the amazing experiences we had shared we were all in agreement of one thing; Iceland has so much more to offer than just the Northern Lights and we cannot wait to return and explore more of this wonderful country.
Flights: Just under 3 hours from Birmingham, London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Belfast.
Accommodation: Range of smaller boutique and quirky properties as well as some chains in the city.
When to go: Iceland is a year-round destination. The best time to travel depends largely on what you want to see or do. Generally speaking, visitors are drawn by the prospect of seeing the Northern Lights should travel September to March. March is also a good time to experience winter activities but without the harsh conditions. If long days appeal then visit between late May and the end of July when you can experience the almost perpetual light of the midnight sun. May and September are great times to visit, especially for fly-drives. If you want to explore the uninhabited interior of Iceland, you should plan your visit for July and August as most of the highland 4WD tracks are only open during this period.
What not to miss: Although famous for the Northern Lights, the Golden Circle & South Island tours are not to be missed along with the Blue Lagoon to finish your visit.
Example package: 3 nights with flights from Manchester, private transfers, accommodation with breakfast, Northern Lights hunt and entry to Blue Lagoon from £899 per person. Based on 2 people sharing, conditions apply. Add on Golden Circle Superjeep tour for an extra £220pp or the South Island tour for £230pp.