Camilla writes: Iceland has been on my travel agenda for some time now, so when I was given the opportunity to join a trip run by Intrepid I could not believe my luck. I knew it was going to be a destination that I would enjoy, but I was still blown away by the ever-changing scenery and volatile environment on this spectacular island.
I met the rest of the group at Heathrow for our early morning departure direct to Reykjavik with British Airways, the flight departed early and thanks to fine weather the duration was reduced by about 30 minutes.
We hit the ground running, packing plenty in on the first day. One benefit travelling to Iceland in May is that there are longer daylight hours and we certainly made the most of them.
Our first stop took in the stunning scenery of Thingvellir Lake, the largest lake in Iceland plunging to 114m at its deepest. We moved swiftly on to Thingvellir National Park and the Parliament Plains, one of just a few places in the world you are able to see 2 tectonic plates meet inland. Iceland sits on the North American and European plates, in this very place there is infact a little known third plate, the Icelandic plate, and it is here where the first parliament of Iceland took place back in the 900’s.
I was soon to discover that Game of Thrones fans would find a lot of Iceland rather familiar and this site was no exception, “The Wall” stands in this very spot. After a scenic stroll to stretch the legs we hopped back on the bus and on to our next natural marvel. We were not disappointed by the Geysir Geothermal Field with its geysers, thermal pools and of course the Great Geysir which erupts every 10-15 minutes, just make sure you are not standing downwind!
To complete the Golden Circle our next stop was Gulfoss, Golden Falls, so named because of the array of rainbows strewn through the mist when the sun is shining.
The day was not done here, we had another 2 waterfalls to check off and I wondered how they would compare. Seljalandsfoss was next, in the summer months not only is this waterfall a sight to behold from the front, surrounded by lush green vegetation and blue skies, if you’re lucky! It is also possible to walk behind it and look through the cascading water as it tumbles into the plunge pool below.
We managed to yet see a third waterfall: Skogfoss. As the sun crept behind the mountains the fine mist spaying up from this mighty torrent chilled me to the bone. But it was worth it!
Close by Skogfoss waterfall is the Skogfoss Folk Museum, one of Iceland’s oldest and best stocked museums focusing on the local way of life through the ages. They were kind enough to open early the next morning and give us a private tour of their extensive collections of artefacts. In the museum grounds are examples of traditional homes, a school house and a chapel all fully furnished and decorated. These buildings had been had been transported intact to become part of the display. Also, on the grounds is the transport museum giving insight into how hard life really must have been for the first settlers.
In the mist and light rain we found ourselves next at Reynisfjara, this black beach of smooth, shiny pebbles and powerful waves had a moody atmosphere. Fringed with black cliffs made up of huge basalt columns and looking across the waves at the unique rock formations it was no wonder we shared the beach with a film crew and photoshoot capturing the almost alien environment as their backdrop.
I was struck by the constantly changing scenery outside the window as our bus journeyed anticlockwise around this magnificent island. There is a saying in Iceland that if you are ever lost in an Icelandic forest, stand up! Not a lot can grow in the shallow, volcanic soil and what does grow takes hundreds of years to become established. This is not aided by the numerous eruptions that occur here constantly changing the landscape and was even more apparent as we drove across the site of the raging river glacier flood, where in 1996, a volcano erupted underground, melted a massive ice sheet and sent huge body of water bigger than the Amazon, Nile and Mississippi rivers combined surging across the surface, taking out the road in its path!
We made a quick stop to take a look at one of the many lava fields that cover the country, although the lava underneath is hard and rough, it is covered in a light green moss making it appear smooth and soft.
Heading further east we were given the opportunity to do a glacier hike. Geared up in our crampons and harnesses clinging tightly to our ice axes we set off to explore the edge of Svinafellsjokull Glacier. The blue ice dusted with volcanic ash was vast and dramatic, our guide told stories of the Game of Thrones actors that he had crossed paths with on the glacier during filming and more disturbingly talked of the alarming rate that the glacier is disappearing, he assured me that hiking on the ice had no diminishing effect and that sadly global warming was to blame.
We raced from the glacier to Jokulsarlon Ice Lagoon just in time to catch our boat tour on the glacial lake filled with icebergs and seals. Due to the salt content of the lake it never freezes and the frosty blue icebergs float in the milky blue waters all year round. A piece of glacial ice was brought onboard for us all to marvel and even eat. At over a thousand years old I can safely say it is the oldest thing I have ever ingested!
We had quite a bit of ground to cover travelling along the south east coast and then inland to our farm stay in the mountains. After a few hours on the coastal road we stopped for a bite to eat in Langubud Harbour. I had been pleasantly surprised by the standard of food so far, having not had great expectations! Bottomless or refillable soups are available at most cafes or rest stops and are delicious, served with homemade bread and butter. The traditional Icelandic fish stew had been my favourite dish, not a stew at all, it is actually left-over fish mixed with mashed potatoes and sometimes cheese or spices and pan fried into a large patty, definitely worth a try.
After more driving we had a stop in Egilstaddir, a small lake town in the far east of the country. This happened to be the hometown of our Intrepid guide Dora and she told us the tale of the creature that lives in the lake, perhaps a relation of Nessie? Iceland has many stories of hidden people, trolls and mystical creatures and most of the population believe in the possibility of there being some truth to these tales, in a place where the ground beneath you almost feels alive you can see why!
Now heading west, inland the landscape began to change again, rolling black hills dappled with snow drifts took over. They say in Iceland of you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes! Today was the perfect example switching from sunshine to rain, to snow, to hail and back to sunshine. We were able to take an unsealed road for part of the journey as it had just been opened for the summer. This allowed us to cross through the “desert”, an expanse of land where nothing grows due to the thin 5cm deep topsoil and very low rainfall in this area. We stopped only for snow angels and snowball fights en-route to our farm stay.
We had been informed correctly on our way here that the food was especially good with options of lamb from the farm, reindeer or fresh fish (the vegetarian option did not come recommended by the chef!). Soon after dinner we were visiting the lambing shed greeting newly born lambs into the world and making friends with the baby goat the farmer had saved from certain death just weeks before. Stopping this goat, who I had renamed shoelace because he seemed to have acquired a taste for them, from following me back to my room proved challenging as the sun set over the national mountain Herdubreid in the distance.
The next morning our first stop was Dettifoss & Selfoss waterfalls. Dettifoss has the greatest volume of any waterfall in Europe, 500 cubic metres of water per second plunges over the edge, you can hear and feel the power of the water without even seeing it.
We then visited Namaskard Hverir with bubbling mud pools and fumaroles billowing eggy steam across what could easily be an alien planet. The road took us next to Myvatn Lake, a huge volcanic lake in the north of the country. The lake is surrounded by pseudo craters formed by steam explosions as glowing hot lava flowed over frozen ground. Apparently, astronauts practised here for the moon landing!
Our busy schedule took us next to the Dimmuborgira Lava Field just east of the lake. This lava flow boiled the water beneath it, the steam bursting through created twisted towers, giant pillars, chimneys, tubes and caves of black, coagulated rock. Before the paths were put in place many people lost their lives trying to navigate through the jagged formations.
We made a quick stop at Grjotagja Cave which contains a thermal spring and vibrant blue natural pools, another Game of Thrones hot spot! Just above these caves you can climb up to see a huge crack in the ground stretching as far as the eye can see, which is almost more impressive that the caves.
Our final stop for the day was the Myvatn, Jardbodin Nature Baths, also known as “The Blue Lagoon of the North”. These stunning manmade baths are maintained at a constant temperature between 36-40°C, with a separate 41°C hot pool for those who can handle it. If you choose to purchase a prepaid beer bracelet staff will bring you a fresh cold one to the poolside at your request, which you can sip while enjoying the spectacular view of lake Myvatn from above. What more could I ask for on my birthday?
You may think by this stage I had seen enough waterfalls, but you would be very much mistaken, each one is so different and always worth the effort to get to. Godafoss Waterfall or “Waterfall of the Gods” was given this name because it is said that when Iceland changed from Heathen to Catholicism old idols were thrown into the water.
From here we drove to the capital of the north Akyreyri, I had hoped to visit the art museum, but it was undergoing renovations, so I made by way up the 112 steps to the Lutheran church and visited the botanic gardens, which is home to a flowerbed containing every native Icelandic plant species, this took up a surprisingly small space! The colourful town is full of small shops, friendly cafes and is easy to find your way around. Even the stop light on the traffic lights is a red heart. If you are craving a really good portion of fish and chips I can highly recommend Akyreyri Fish, a red fronted restaurant close to the main road.
Back on the road we drove alongside fiords and through tunnels, up to 7km long. We made our next stop in Siglufjordur village a remote settlement speckled with colourful houses and a picturesque harbour. The main attraction here is the herring museum, which I did not have time to fully investigate, but probably has select audience! The final stop we made on our way to our accommodation was at 66° North, this is the most northerly part of the country and the most northerly place I have been yet.
Throughout Iceland the impact of volcanoes is visible everywhere, lava flows cover vast areas of the landscape, this morning it was finally time to get closer to one. Grabrokargigar is now extinct, so safe to take the short hike to the top and enjoy the views down into the crater and across the surrounding countryside. Amazing to think I was able to stand where there were once explosions of molten magma.
Looking out of the window as we drove through the fiords and the tunnels that connect them was relaxing and beautiful.
We stopped to get some fresh air at Breidafjordur Harbour, taking a walk up onto the hill opposite the harbour for views back across the town and out through the fiords as far as the eye could see. This little place was used to shoot some of the Greenland footage for ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, if you are familiar with the film you can easily recognise the yellow bar featured in the scene.
We made a short stop in Grundarfjordur for lunch before heading to Djupalonssandur beach. Walking towards the water, strewn across the black pebbles were huge rusted parts of wrecked sea vessels, evidence that it was once a prolific fishing town. When you get closer to the water you can see why, the waves were mighty, powerful and milky white. At the waters edge there are huge jagged rock formations which stood between me and the destructive waters. As we stood there in awe of the shear size of the waves on the other side of these rocks I casually said “the waves look so much higher than we are” at which point we all turned to run as the enormous swell crashed over the rocks and onto the beach where we were stood. I could have watched the water for hours, but we had to press on.
Not far from our final night of accommodation is Gatklettur an impressive rock formation near Arnarstapi. By the carpark is a tiny black and white chapel, with its bold lines it stands out in a very photogenic way from its surroundings.
It is possible to view the huge holes through the rocks from the cliff tops and walk through the dunes to the sandy beach. As the weather started to look stormy we didn’t stay too long.
Our last night was at a homestay on a horse farm, we were cooked a beautiful meal by our welcoming hosts and spent the last night surrounded by horses and moody skies.
I was a little melancholy waking up this morning knowing that is was my last day in Iceland, I felt very connected to this beautiful country and was reluctant to leave. We had heard there was a storm brewing but were assured flights were not being affected! Due to the weather warnings we drove straight to Reykjavik. When we arrived the weather was pretty miserable, strong winds and torrential rain, but we soldiered on. First, we visited Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran church, at 74.5 metres high it is the largest church in Iceland, among the tallest structures in the country it is visible from almost the whole city. The central streets are full of colourful shopfronts bars and restaurants. There is a wealth of museums to visit with features from art to whales or the northern lights. By the port are some excellent seafood restaurants and if you are a burger lover try Tommi’s Burger Joint.
On the way to the airport we made one last stop to see what all the hype is about at the Blue Lagoon. We didn’t have a chance to take a dip, but the water certainly looked inviting.
Again, our direct British Airways flight to Heathrow departed early and landed before schedule late on Saturday night. It had been a wonderful trip – absolutely packed with experiences and shared with a great group of fellow travel agents, hosted very kindly by our friends at Intrepid Travel.
If you wish to discuss a possible trip to Iceland with me at anytime then please get in touch.