Some of you may recall that Richard and I visited Reykjavik in January this year. We spent two and a bit days there exploring the city but due to the short trip (poor planning because we were travel rookies!), we were unable to experience the natural delights Iceland has to offer. With only one night available for hunting Northern Lights, we failed to see anything. Last month (November), we returned to Iceland for a fun-filled five day adventure with two of our friends. It was quite simply, incredible.
I was once again, struck by geological similarities between Iceland and New Zealand. The volcanic surroundings have created hills and mountains along with an abundance of dark pock-marked lava rock. The weather during November is noticeably warmer than January (Iceland’s coldest month), with virtually no snow around. Temperatures hovered around five to six degrees, on occasion dropping to negative one or two in the evenings. As we had come to expect, it’s most important to have windproof clothing to protect from the chilly winds blowing in off the surrounding oceans. During this particular trip, we also learnt the importance of waterproof clothing!
For dinner on the first night, we returned to Old Icelandic Restaurant. I’ve been craving Icelandic meat soup ever since we first tasted it in January. A dinner of red fish and cod followed with an amazing rhubarb cake for dessert. The restaurant is small and the staff are attentive without being intrusive – it comes naturally to the Icelandic people. While I recommend this restaurant highly, you must plan ahead and book because it gets full fast. Just add it to your schedule and book it in, you’ll never regret a visit to this restaurant. Due to the cancellation of the Northern Lights tour we were able to take our time walking back to the hotel, stopping at a small grocery store to stock up on snacks and sandwich ingredients for lunch during our upcoming tours. Given how expensive Iceland is, this was a convenient and fuss-free way to save some money while also ensuring you’re not caught out in the middle of nowhere without sustenance!
The first full day in Iceland had us engaged in glacier hiking. We were taken by coach about 150km out to the relatively young glacier called Sólheimajökull. We were fitted out with crampons over our shoes, ice picks and harnesses before heading out towards gorgeous large icy mass. It was an incredible blue covered in two-day old snowflakes. The “hike” was very low intensity, allowing us to peer into the deep crevasses created by flowing water under the surface. There was a small cave and tunnel we passed through that were just too beautiful for words. The glacier itself has come down from the northern ice cap and has been in that particular spot for just over 100 years. Less than a century ago a particularly enormous volcanic eruption covered the area in a thick layer of volcanic ash, the subsequent snowfall trapped this ash into the glacier, crushing it into compacted rock. As the glacial ice melts each summer, some of the crushed volcanic ash layer appear peeking through the crystal blue of the ice. We managed to see some great examples of this during our hike along with incredible views of the mountains on either side of the glacier. And as luck would have it, the sun peeked out briefly as well. The distance to the glacier meant it took an entire day to get there, do the hike and return. On the way back we did stop by two waterfalls where we were showered with freezing spray and I fell down twice on the icy rocks to get the right photos – what I endure to share with you all!
Eventually it had to rain during our trip, as the weatherman promised, and it did so on the day we went snorkeling. If we had to pick an activity where it had to rain, I suppose this would have been it since we were submerged in icy fresh water. It turns out you CAN be simultaneously freezing and having the time of your life. Our guide drove us to Þingvellir, which is a huge national park. There is a spot in the park where the American and Euro-Asia tectonic plates meet. We stood in the rain getting squeezed and shoved into a thermal suit and then a dry suit along with gloves, a mask and snorkel. Super snug, if not a little crushed, we walked over to the entry point where our guide popped flippers on and took us in. The only body parts that get wet in this situation are your hands and head. My fingers became painfully cold almost instantly. Once you muster the courage to stick your head underwater though, the spectacular view will make you forget about the pain. The water was clear despite the rain and we could see the valley formed between large jutting rocks. The water is partly geothermal which means that despite it feeling super cold to us, the water never freezes over and tends to stay about the same temperature year round. There are also no fish or sea creatures in the water, only rocks, some algae, snorklers and scuba divers (who looked super cool!). We haven’t done anything quite like that before and while the underwater camera doesn’t produce the same quality photos we usually have, I hope you can appreciate how incredible the whole experience was.
On the way back from our snorkel, we stopped by the local geysir. It was raining pretty steadily and our exploration of the thermal area was marred somewhat with my jacket proving to be less than “super dry”. The area however, is still beautiful. There were green and vibrant blue pools of thermal water along with the geysir that erupts every 5-10 minutes. The spray reaches about 16 metres which is a reasonable effort. We also had a quick stop at Gullfoss waterfall. There, I clutched a rapidly cooling cup of tea and looked out onto the raging rapids. The waterfall has three steps with an astounding rush of water plummeting into what feels like the depths of the Earth since you can’t see the bottom from the viewing area.
The following day, Richard and I went on a short horse ride at a local riding farm to get up close and personal with the cute and hardy Icelandic horses. This special breed are well protected biosecurity assets with a special clean required if you have been in contact with other horses, and any Icelandic horse that leaves Iceland is not allowed to return. These horses are short and stout versions of other horses, but be careful not to call them ponies! They’re adorably fluffy and have thick manes to protect them from the harsh Icelandic weather. While I’m not horse riding expert, I found we sat further forward than you would on regular horses. Both of us thoroughly enjoyed bonding with our steeds who took us on a pretty walk through the volcanic park. It was there we learnt about trees in Iceland – specifically that there are none. All the trees have been planted by humans, with no naturally growing trees that we know of – a significant difference between NZ and Iceland! As an aside, we also learnt that for every tree cut down, two must be planted in its place. The weather held up during our horse trek, with some sun briefly popping out. It was a bit cold for the hands and face but otherwise a fairly mild Icelandic day.
After our horse trek, we returned to Reykjavik and walked about town before dinner at Sjávargrillið. It was highly recommended on all channels and we were not disappointed. I tried reindeer (gasp) which was so delicious (double gasp). Richard also had a very smokey lamb shoulder. With the weather much improved outside of Reykjavik, we headed back to our hotel to be picked up for the Northern Lights tour. On arrival we could see a light smudge on the horizon that was first discovered by Richard and soon verified as aurora activity by our guide. We stood around taking photos for some time before the real show started. A bright arc formed overhead and soon began rippling quickly across the sky before disappearing. It was a truly incredible sight that surpassed my expectations. To the naked eye the arcs that formed were green but in Richard’s camera lens we were able to see some tinges of red and purple which was really incredible. We were both beyond pleased to see the lights and just in the nick of time on our last evening in Iceland.
After four days of hiking, swimming and riding, our final day at the Blue Lagoon was a welcome relief. We arrived just after 9am before the sun was up so we were able to spent a little time with fewer people around and enjoy the sunrise from the warm waters. Everything was well kept and clean which I appreciated. All visitors are required to shower without their swimwear prior to entering the pools. I also liked that the changing rooms had an area for you to dry off so that the locker rooms stayed dry. A tip for people with long hair – silica can wreck havoc on hair so it’s recommended that you put conditioner in and leave it before entering the pools. It’s the first time I’ve bathed in a hot pool when it’s so cold outside. With water reaching about 38 degrees, it’s the world’s biggest bath! Steam rolled off the surface and billowed across the area creating a truly magical atmosphere. We spent hours in the pools turning into raisins but enjoying every second. It’s the perfect way to round off a successful trip.
The very first time I went to Iceland I liked it a lot but wondered if it was because it reminded me of home. Following this trip I am absolutely certain of my love for this incredible country. With only less than 350,000 people, they’ve created a veritable haven of touristic wonders, ensured a population that speaks their own native tongue along with fluent English and Danish, and now consume 100% renewable energy. There is much to admire, from their free education to their cheerful attitudes in light of the harsh environment they survive in. We managed to swim between tectonic plates, taste a piece of glacier and see the dancing Northern Lights – I cannot think of a more perfect trip we have done so far. Iceland has won my heart over and I was sad to say goodbye.