Iceland April 2012
Back in April this year Nick and I made our first trip to the mysterious frozen world that is Iceland. I say first trip as within about an hour of arriving in Reykjavik we had already decided that this is a country we will be revisiting throughout our lives. It is an amazing place, full of contrasts and contradictions: it is a country of immense frosty glaciers and steaming hot springs, peace and tranquillity and wild nightlife, ancient myths and legends and fashionable youngsters, serene natural beauty and trendy bars and boutiques. It is a place like no other I have ever been and one that I will definitely be going back to.
Unfortunately Nick and I were both really ill for pretty much the entire holiday, so although we managed to pack in a lot of things in the seven days we were there, it was still perhaps not quite as much as we would have liked to do. For example, Reykjavik is famous for it’s ‘runtar’. The runtar is basically a huge bar crawl that takes place on Friday and Saturday nights that apparently most of the city’s inhabitants get involved in and that goes on until about 9am the following day. Both Nick and I were really keen to get involved and meet some locals but after long days sightseeing in the cold wind neither of us were fit for anything except bed. We were gutted we missed out but, like I said, we will be going back again as soon as we can and hopefully next time we will be in better health!
We stayed in a hostel called Capital Inn:
We were a little unsure about this hostel when we first arrived as it was about a thirty minute walk from the city centre but in the end there were plenty of positives to make up for the location. We were staying in a four bed mixed dorm which, despite perhaps lacking a little in character, was clean and warm and for all bar two of the nights we had the whole room to ourselves – I think as a result of travelling outside the tourist season.
Our room was downstairs along with two big bathrooms with showers, a pool table, massive fully equipped kitchen and dining tables. The kitchen was particularly useful as eating out in Reykjavik is very expensive and so most days we cooked for ourselves. The hostel did have a restaurant inside with an impressive looking menu but we didn’t try it out. The reception staff were completely lovely and helped us to book all our tours and transport which was really great. I can’t remember exactly what we paid for our beds but I know that it was one of the cheapest places I could find in Reykjavik and for what you get for your money it was definitely well worth it. All in all I would highly recommend this hostel to anyone who doesn’t mind being a little further away from the action.
Our first day in Reykjavik we spent acclimatising, finding our way around the city and sitting in coffee shops taking painkillers for our various ailments! Despite being slightly distracted with our health, Reykjavik had us mesmerised. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is but the city is simply amazing; incredibly inspiring and inviting. I think it might be because it is such an artistic city. It seems as if every other shop is a private art gallery or boutique, almost every bar has advertisements in the windows for live local music, and so many of the buildings are covered in the good kind of graffiti – not scrawled tags but real stunning pieces of artwork. As soon as I got there I was really itching to go and do something creative. I imagine it would be a great place to live as an artist.
By the second day we were ready for some adventure and booked a whale watching tour with a company called Elding:
I’d never seen whales before and this tour was something I was really very excited about. The weather wasn’t ideal for spotting whales as it was very windy and raining and we even had some snow when we got out to sea, but the weather forecast for the rest of our stay wasn’t looking any better so we thought we would just give it a go and hope for the best. The boat journey itself was enjoyable, especially the view across Reykjavik as we pulled away from the harbour. Once we got out to sea the wind really picked up and the boat was rocking and rolling all over the place so that if you didn‘t hold on tight you‘d be on the flung around on the floor. It was great fun but if you are at all prone to any level of sea sickness I wouldn’t recommend it! There was a tour guide talking to the passengers the whole journey, telling us information about the kinds of whales they get in Iceland and telling us what we need to look out for. He made a point of explaining that although some countries tag whales to make them easier to find for tourists, in Iceland they are against this as they are conscious that the whales remain as free and wild as nature intended. After a couple of hours at sea following seagulls in the hope of finding fish, in the hope of finding whales, I was starting to doubt whether or not we would get to see any whales at all, when suddenly a jet of air broke out from the water a couple of hundred feet from the boat. Two humpback whales were feeding nearby. It was a stunning sight and I was so happy to have finally seen some real wild whales. We managed to follow them for about an forty-five minutes or so before the captain decided to turn back so as not to aggravate them. This was an amazing day and one I will never forget. I’d recommend whale watching to anyone who can stomach the boat ride!
A tour of the south coast.
By day three we really had developed a thirst for adventure and so went on a tour of the south coast of Iceland and the Jökulsari. I should mention that I am normally opposed to taking tours, preferring to find my own way and make my own experiences, but in Iceland this is pretty impossible, at least without a car. With something like only twenty per cent of Iceland’s inhabitants living outside of Reykjavik, and out side of the city being pretty remote, buses only really travel within the capital and everyone in the rest of Iceland owns a car. As far as we could make out the only buses that go to the rest of the country are tour buses. The tours in Iceland don’t come cheap either, but for what you get for your money they are well worth forking out for. The tour we took today cost us £125 each but involved a full 14 hour guided tour of some of the most spectacular natural wonders I have ever seen in my life. We went with another company that I would highly recommend called Iceland Excursions:
The tour guide was amazing and really made the trip. He was really friendly and full of information and stories about his country. Because we were travelling outside of the tourist season, every place we arrived at we were the only group which meant we had the whole place to ourselves and could enjoy the views without hundreds of other tourists spoiling it. It also meant that we could get in and out of sites quickly and ended up with spare time to visit a couple of extra places that weren’t included in the original itinerary. There is no point going through everything we saw that day as my words won’t do it justice so I will show some photos instead, although even these don‘t capture the true beauty of the wonders we saw that day.
Day four was again spent doing some sightseeing around the city, sipping hot chocolates in the uber cool coffee shops and generally chilling out. That night we did what we were possibly the most excited about and went on a hunt for the famous Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. We went with a tour company called Reykjavik Excursions:
This tour was only £24 each including pick up and drop off from our hostel and came with the guarantee that if we didn’t see any of the lights we could book again for free. As with the whale watching tour, the weather wasn’t on our side, and although the lights were apparently putting on a good show somewhere up there, it was very cloudy and so once again I wasn’t feeling too hopeful. Also, we were going on the tour just two days before it closed for the summer as the evenings were getting too light – the best time to go is right in the heart of winter. We had to drive for a good couple of hours before we got to a patch of sky that was clear enough but when we got there we did actually manage to see some lights! It wasn’t the powerful green lights you see on the tele, but it was amazing none the less. We had a show of hazy white lights dancing across the sky in great long ribbons. We were tired, ill and freezing cold out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night but we didn’t care one bit. The lights were truly magical and I will definitely be going back some time when it’s winter for the full on displays you see in books.
Day five was spent mooching around the city again. We visited a few very interesting museums and galleries including the National Museum, (www.natmus.is), which gives a fascinating insight into Iceland’s history and culture; the Saga Museum, (www.sagamuseum.is), which tells the famous Icelandic sagas through eerily realistic silicon mannequins moulded from some of the city’s residents; and the Phallological Museum, (http://www.phallus.is), which simply needs to be seen to be believed! Although we did see the Aurora Borealis last night, because it was a relatively weak display, Reykjavik Excursions had said we could come back again tonight for free to have another look. I was really surprised by this, as I thought because we had seen them already that would be it. It was one thing that was consistent with all the tours we went on; the tour guides seemed to genuinely want us to have an amazing experience in Iceland. In some places I’ve been there has been the general feeling that tours are there to rip you off, but every single one we went on in Iceland made a huge amount of effort to show us a good time, even if it meant extending the tour for longer than we had paid for. This time on the tour however, we weren’t so lucky and didn’t get to see any light displays. However, the tour guide took us to a really beautiful spot, and just watching the stars was amazing enough.
Day six called for a bit of pampering so we headed off for the Blue Lagoon:
The Blue Lagoon is a large out door geothermal pool which I could easily while away many lazy days in if given the chance. It’s not cheap and so when deciding whether it was worth going to we read a lot of online reviews and they all said it’s worth the money and believe me when I say it really is. Being outside in the cold but feeling lovely and toasty in the water is a strangely relaxing feeling. We spent a good few hours simply floating around in the milky blue waters. Around the pool are geothermal saunas and steam-rooms along with waterfalls and hot tubs. There’s also a bar at the side of the pool and luxury spa treatments inside for those with more money to spend. I’m sure there is a scientific reason, I’m not sure what it is but it makes your skin feel really lovely and soft too. Word of advice though, take plenty of conditioner for your hair. My hair is bleached and died and the water played havoc with it, stripping a lot of the colour out and leaving it so dry I broke my hairbrush trying to comb through it! However, everyone else’s hair looked pretty normal afterwards so maybe it’s just me?!
Our final day we spent an yet another tour, this time of the Golden Circle, which included a visit to the Gullfoss, Geysir and pingvellir. Once again we went with Iceland Excursions and once again were not disappointed. We had another very friendly, very knowledgeable guide, time for a couple of extra stops and saw some more seriously stunning sights across Iceland. Again, I don’t think my words will do the day justice so I’m going to show some photos instead:
All in all Iceland is one seriously amazing place which I would highly recommend it to everyone. Whether you’re after stunning natural beauty, ancient tradition and culture, art, fashion, wild nightlife, history, adventure or simply a relaxing break, Iceland has it all. We were both extremely sad to be leaving on our last day and will definitely be going back there as soon as we can.