When we first moved to London we dreamt about all the last-minute European adventures that we would embark on… In reality, it turns out that we are quite organised people and the thought of planning a holiday at the last-minute just didn’t feel right. However, back in April, we decided to give it a go…
We woke up Monday morning and decided that we should go away for the upcoming weekend as we both had Friday off work. The question was where to go? As we missed out on seeing the northern lights in Finland over Christmas, somewhere in the arctic circle seemed the obvious choice and so Iceland was chosen as the destination for our spontaneous adventure.
Our flights were booked on Thursday morning and 24 hours later we were on our way to Reykjavik. Once we landed and were on the road heading towards the capital, we began to realise that this was unlike any other country we had ever visited. With an entire population of just over three hundred thousand, the houses were very spread out and the volcanic landscape made for an endless view of rocky, uneven ground; somewhat resembling the surface of the moon.
The Blue Lagoon
After arriving at our apartment in the capital Reykjavik, it was time to head out and see what Iceland had to offer. First on the agenda was the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located in a lava field in Grindavik on the Reykajanes Peninsula, 39km from the capital city. The lagoon is man-made and fed by the nearby geothermal power plant. Superheated water enters from the ground near a lava flow which is used to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, steam and hot water pass through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal water heating system. Then, the water is fed into the blue lagoon for recreational and medicinal bathing. The warm waters have an average temperature of 38° and are rich with silica and sulphur which provide relief for skin conditions such as a psoriasis.
As we stood outside the change rooms ready to remove our bathrobe and walk outside wearing just our swimwear, we were very sceptical of how we could possibly enjoy this experience as it was -8 and snowing outside. However, as soon we stepped into the 39°C water we were pleasantly surprised. We based ourselves near one of the inlets for the natural warm water and spent hours relaxing as we floated around. We drank champagne from the swim-up bar and used the thick white silica mud to give ourselves facials which resulted in our pale English skin looking healthier than it has in months.
After a relaxing afternoon, it was time to head back to Reykjavik for a feast of fresh seafood, before dressing in our warmest clothes and heading back out into the sunset, in search of the northern lights.
We spent hours with a tour company who took us to all their usual spots in search of some aurora activity. However, there was nothing to see… Finally, at midnight, we were told that we would make one last stop before giving up. Now, with mixed feelings of disappointment and anticipation, we got off the bus once more with our camera in-hand and ready. Just as we were about to sulk back into the bus broken-hearted, we decided to take a photo to see what it showed. We set the camera to a long exposure time of 15 seconds, and using the tripod, took our first picture. It showed some lines that were very light green!! The northern lights were coming out!! We waited in the cold for another 15 minutes and then… all the sudden… more bright green lines began to appear in the sky. They lasted for approximately 10 minutes before disappearing, almost as quickly as they appeared and then it was time to get back on a bus and go home.
We were 2 hours out of Reykjavik (and well after 2:00am) so everybody began to drift off and get some rest. All of a sudden, half way into our drive, a lot of screaming could be heard from the front of the bus. At first we thought something was wrong, until we realised people were screaming with excitement as the northern lights had suddenly much brighter than before. We all jumped off the bus with our cameras and attempted to capture this once in a lifetime event. Needless to say we were exhausted the next day but it was well worth it!
The Golden Circle
Day 2 in Iceland and there was no time to be tired, as we had booked ourselves on a golden circle tour. This popular tourist route in the south covers approximately 300km looping from Reykjavik into Central Iceland and back. The three primary stops are the national park Pingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss and the geothermal active valley of Haukadalur, which contains the Geysir and Strokkur water spouts.
The first stop of the day was the national park Pingvellir which is made famous by the growing, visible gap between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. These plates are moving apart at a rate of 2cm per year pushing Canada further away from Europe.
Next up was the amazing Gullfoss Waterfall, which means golden waterfall. This magnificent 32 metre high double waterfall is the largest in Europe and consists of two steps plunging into a 20m wide crevice with an average flow rate of 140 cubic metres per second. As you approach the Gullfoss from a distance, your view of the crevice is obstructed so you cannot fully appreciate the waterfall until it is right in front of you. Although it was -6°C and we were freezing, we spent a long time standing just watching the icy water rush past. It was certainly an amazing and breathtaking sight.
It was then time to head to the Haukadalur valley famous for its geysers: a hot spring where water intermittently boils, sending a tall column of water and steam into the air. Some of the hot springs are small and non-active. However, two of them (the Geysir and Strokkur), are very dependable and erupt every 5 to 10 minutes.
Our tour was running ahead of schedule so we had time for a quick stop at Crater Kerid: a lake located in a volcanic crater which is 55 metres deep, 170 m wide and 270 metres in diameter. It is approximately 3000 years old. The lake itself is very shallow (generally less than 10 metres deep), but due to minerals from the soil, is very opaque with a striking aqua colour.
Back in Reykjavik, we had just a few hours to explore one of Europe’s smallest capital cities before sunset. We went for a short walk around town stopping at the Hallgrimskirkja: the largest church in Iceland which is said to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape. Then it was time for a quick stop at Europe’s tastiest hotdog stand ‘Baejarins Beztu Pylsur’. It has been operating since 1939, and back in 2006 was voted the best hot dog stand in Europe. Hotdogs are sometimes referred to as “the Icelandic national food”, and this particular stand became more famous when Bill Clinton ate there. We know you’re wondering… How good were they? Disgusting just about sums it up!
After hot dogs for an entrée, it was time for a serious meal of Icelandic cuisine. We chose a traditional restaurant and ordered an Icelandic delicacy platter for a starter. This consisted of whale, freeze-dried cod, smoked salmon and fermented shark. The shark was served as small cubes in a jar which reeked of vinegar. We were told by our waiter that the best way to enjoy fermented shark was to eat the cube followed by a shot of Brennvin. This is clear unsweetened schnapps made from fermented potato mash, seasoned with caraway and cumin: commonly know by locals as Black Death. The best way in which to describe its taste is like drinking methylated spirits. The shark was definitely not our favourite, or preferred dish of the evening.
We followed up with more fresh seafood (not as exotic this time), fresh mussels and Salmon before heading back to the hotel for some well deserved rest, before our early flight home the next morning.
This was a weekend well spent in a country that we recommend that you visit! Iceland was definitely one of our favourite European destinations and we hope to be back one day, (although maybe in the summer when it’s slightly warmer).