We’ve talked about visiting for ages and finally got round to booking a short trip a couple of weeks before our intended departure. And just a couple of days before the Beast from the East had us snowed in for about 60 hours. So, clearly, we were feeling the need for a bit of winter weather.
The theme continued as we arrived at Glasgow Airport to find our flight delayed by that morning’s heavy snowfall in Keflavík. But quick turn around on the plane and we arrived less than an hour behind schedule fortified by a local treat of Happy Marriage Cake (since it was our anniversary). The first thing that made me giggle before we left the airport was the language links with Scotland. It turns out the Icelandic and Glaswegian for Exit are pronounced the same.
First task was our 2 hour plus drive along the south coast to the hotel. Amazing scenery, first snow covered hills then over one major peak to the flattest of flat lands. It turns out that the last major volcanic eruption added 5km to the south coast. And they are overdue another biggie. So this coastal drive is flat, black and demarcated from the volcanic peaks of the inner part of the island. A landscape reminiscent of Assynt, but perhaps once they could have been part of the same mass?
And everywhere fields of the tiny Icelandic horses. I had read an article titled 9 things you didn’t know. Like they are horses, not ponies. Their nearest relative is the Shetland Pony, they can do different walks than other horses (maybe because they are jumped up ponies?), there are no horses imported to Iceland and if one leaves it can’t return. JT guessed one statement due to the sheer number of them. I wasn’t expecting fact number 8; “they are delicious”. We didn’t put that to the test, sticking mainly to fish and beef dishes while here. As warned, the food and alcohol were significantly more expensive than at home but the standard was excellent. Arctic char, salmon, pickled herring, reindeer carpaccio and burgers from the local farm. All washed down with local beer. Skyr for breakfast, rye bread and a rather marvellous baked marzipan cake with coffee.
Not much time on day 1 to do anything much other than get to the hotel, have dinner and hope we would get a wake up call for the Northern Lights. Alas, although it seems the night before we arrived had a great display, this was to be the only aspect of our trip that didn’t deliver. The sky was clear though and even on a quick look we were treated to a better view of Orion and the Milky Way than what we are so proud of from here at the Icestation. And on the last night a wonderful pink hue on the snow covered hills from the setting sun.
So two days ahead to pack in a few sights. There were waterfalls a plenty. First was Seljalandsfoss and it’s neighbour Gljúfrafoss. Pretty spectacular, one dropping from on high, the other hidden behind a fissure in the rocks. Both would be worthy of exploration behind, but today the frozen surrounds meant several paths out of bounds. We both immediately and separately decided a return trip in summer is required. We made a later visit to Skógafoss. The hike above the eastern side uncovers several more waterfalls and a river strewn with boulders from further upstream. The moors provide views up to the hills and volcano responsible for the 2010 air flight shut down. A marked path here, so another potential summer adventure.
But spectacular though these waterfalls were, they paled against the mighty Gulfoss. Henceforth known as the waterfall against which all future waterfalls shall be measured. Perhaps not quite as dramatic as Niagara, but top of my list as the partially frozen falls and the dramatic gorge were like nothing I’ve ever seen. The glacier behind and snowy peaks from the wide plains seemed like an alien landscape. The road closed to all but specially adapted vehicles, even in mid March. The falls become wilder as the spring progresses and more water flows from the snow melt. The long narrow gorge can overflow, which looking far down to it seems unbelievable.
Day 2 and the weather forecast said just above freezing and breezy. We headed to Sólheimajökull, the nearest glacier. Six layers on top, two layers on legs, two pairs of gloves, two pairs of socks and we were just about warm enough. Breezy? I could hardly make progress into the headwind. I think Icelandic breezy = UK Met Office amber warning. But what an experience. The landscape changed as we approached on the access road. From the flat ring road, suddenly there were hills and twists as (presumably) the land had been pushed in front of the glacier. It was like a living geography lesson. I wish I had paid attention all those years ago.
From the thought provoking and frankly scary notice showing how far the glacier has receded since 2010 to the walk up onto the ice, it was a fabulous few hours. We hadn’t wanted to give up a whole day on this short trip to an organised tour, but next time we both want to explore more. The blue of the clean ice (the black grit from the lava made much of it quite dark), the cracks and fissures, the path winding higher and the calves which had sheared off ahead of the glacial mass. For a small glacier the enormity of it was breathtaking.
Our other stops included the wreckage of an American DC3 on the black sand beach, and the most dangerous beach in Iceland with so called sneaker waves and its basalt columns and sea stacks. Both with the sea whipped up to fury by the Icelandic breeze.
Talking of water whipped up to fury, we also made a stop at Geysir. The eponymous gusher no longer goes off but Strokkur is more reliable. We wandered around checking out the various bubbling areas and blasts of steam. I headed uphill and to a side better for photography. JT stayed downwind, in an area he judged to be safely dry. There she blows! Once, twice and then a huge third eruption. The height perhaps not as impressive as I had anticipated given the force of the wind. On this one the horizontal travel was spectacular. Cue one very wet husband to be found laughing out loud in a large puddle.
So too soon it was day 4 and time to head back to Reykjavík for our last night. We didn’t do much after arrival. Coffee and cake, the concrete cathedral and a long walk out to Grotta Island Lighthouse before dinner at the harbour. Then drinks in a local brewery and early to bed before the 430am alarm call for the drive back to the airport.
Swimming, you ask? Of course. But that deserves a post of its own.
Final assessment? Despite no northern lights it was a solid 9 out of 10 holiday. Must go back. Soon. Top tip from my colleague was take lots of layers. Too true. The temperature you feel has no resemblance to the temperature you see on the thermometer. My top tip to add is don’t bother with cash. Credit card society.