I have a small (actually pretty big) bucket list for my life – one of the things on it are to see the Northern Lights. When we saw a travel package for a trip to Iceland to see the Northern Lights, I was sold! Being in Europe there are several places to go to see the Northern Lights at certain times of year and although neither Chris or I really had ever wanted to see Iceland we jumped at the chance. Then we got the call – the package was full on the days we had booked. They could book the flight for further in April, but the chances of seeing the Northern Lights that late in the spring were rare. We decided that, hey, it was Iceland, Northern Lights or not we’d be interested in seeing and exploring it. We had nothing but issues with Clear Sky Holidays – AVOID – but eventually we did end up in Iceland.
We stayed the night before the flight in a really, REALLY rubbish hotel near the airport. We had some time to kill before it was time for be so we drove to the city centre of Luton. We stumbled upon this beautiful gem –
A few things we didn’t stumble upon were – parking spaces, kind drivers, or a place to eat. Needless to say after that evening, the “hotel”, and a horrible nights sleep we were ready to be on our way to Iceland.
It was mid-April and in England and it was jacket weather. I knew we’d need some warmer clothes for Iceland so I begrudgingly packed my coat. After having some breakfast in the airport after landing and waiting for our hotel transfer, I stepped outside. IT WAS FREEZING. It took my breath away and the wind…. oh the wind…… was simply out of control! As we boarded the bus and headed towards the Blue Lagoon (for a few hours before we got to the hotel) it really looked like we were on another planet. Chris and I said several times there is absolutely no way to describe what Iceland is like – you just have to experience it (although I will TRY to explain and show it). What I didn’t know was that a lot of Americans go to Iceland on their way to other destinations. There were so many American accents!
To get to the Blue Lagoon you drive over Lava Fields. Its like molten rock covered in algae. As we were driving it started to snow and it made for a very happy welcome to Iceland. I was hoping for 2 things: snow and northern lights – one down, one to go!
We decided to book a coach that would stop at the Blue Lagoon so that we could see it and kill time before check-in at the hotel. Neither of us were very keen to actually get in the lagoon (mostly because of the price) but we did pay to go in and walk around. I am sure it is a pretty unique experience to actually get in – but just seeing it was quite amazing. Something I’ve never seen in my whole life and doubt I will ever see again.
After a nice tour of the Blue Lagoon we got back on the minibus for the rest of the drive to Reykjavik. It wasn’t a long drive but I’d been up very early and I was torn between staying awake and watching the scenery go by and nodding off. My tiredness won and I was napping when Chris nudged me and said (quite loudly through excitement), “Jamie, look!” I looked out of the window just in time to see Taco Bell! What?!?!? In Iceland of all places there was a Taco Bell? Well, as you might imagine, this deprived expat quickly put it on my list of places to visit in Iceland. We also drove past a yellow chapel that looking VERY Mormon. When we looked it up at the hotel we found that it actually was the LDS chapel. We got to the hotel and they allowed us to check-in early and we were lead to a nice room. As a side note: what is it with see-through or misted bathroom doors? No thanks! I decided that I really needed a bit of a nap (so that I wouldn’t be grumpy). Chris decided to walk to the nearest supermarket and quickly found out that the out of control wind wasn’t dying down. He got back and woke me up in enough time to have dinner and go to sleep for the night. To be fair, being car-less and not right in the city centre there wasn’t much else we COULD do. So we had an early night because we had a full day planned for the next day.
Doing some reading about Iceland one thing that was a MUST do was to take a tour of the Golden Circle. We found a self-guided tour that looked really good to us. Instead of being tied to a tour group/bus we could hire a car for 24 hours, complete with sat nav, and do it on our own time. We went to pick up the car and they asked if we wanted additional “sand and ASH” cover – I should have known then that driving around Iceland would be an interesting experience. They also said they’d run out of sat navs , but that they’d show us on a map how to get to the stops. It was at that point I was seriously reconsidering doing this ourselves. Chris demanded that they get us a sat nav (since that is what we paid for) and one of the big bosses went next door to a competing car hire company and borrowed one of theirs. Thank goodness for that! We signed our life away and jumped into the car. Now, this was the first time in 4 years I was driving a right hand drive on the right hand side of the road (not to mention it was an automatic). I think I did pretty well for being so out of practice. We stopped to get some road trip snacks and some most delicious cinnamon rolls drenched in caramel and headed out onto the open road.
The wind was relentless and out in the wide open nothing stopped it. Steering a car was very difficult and once the snow started to fall the happiness I felt the day before at the sight of it quickly changed to nervousness.
Þingvellir is where Parliament was first held in Iceland (hopefully in the Summer). Its also where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimetres per year. Although Iceland celebrated Summer starting in mid-April – I wasn’t convinced and so our pictures at the sights were more like a sprint to get the picture and a sprint back into the car, fighting the wind all the while especially when opening the car door. Now, I’m not complaining, its just that since it was late Spring I wasn’t at all prepared for how cold and windy it was. The land was so desolate and so empty. That alone was quite spectacular.
After we saw Þingvellir we embarked upon what would be the scariest drive of my whole life…. ever. We had a great drive just coasting around the valley and looking at the scenery. It was rare to see another car and it felt like you were totally alone in this strange land. Then we started up a hill. I could see that we were headed to the mountains and could see the clouds and snow started to lightly fall. The higher we got the more stormy it got. And then all of the sudden it hit – a complete whiteout, not only was it snowing but the wind was blowing so hard you couldn’t see anything. You couldn’t see any other cars, the lines on the road, THE ROAD, what might lie just off of the road (ditches or big drops). I started to panic – Chris started to take pictures.
As I drove I wanted to just to stop in the middle of the road, cry, and wait for the snow to stop. But I knew I couldn’t do that. There was BOUND to be other cars nearby so I did what any panicked person would do. I did a U-turn. As I turned I prayed that no one was headed toward me. I managed to do it and as I drove back down the mountain I could see there was a queue of about 5 cars behind me. So I headed back and after about 5 minutes I decided I would wait until I could follow some other cars and try it again. So we headed back up but right when we got to the point where it was snowing again I turned around again… I pulled to a little dirt patch and had a bit of a meltdown. I wanted to turn around and go back, but I didn’t want to waste the money or the experience of seeing what was on the other side of that storm. So, I tried one more time. Inching along with a car following me and hoping and praying that the storm would eventually end and we’d get out of it safe. It may sound like I am being dramatic, but coming from a Utah girl who has driven in her fair share of bad storms – this one beats them all. It was the combination of the wind AND snow. I managed to make it through the storm and prayed that it was the last one we’d encounter. I have no idea why the road wasn’t closed. There were gates at either side so it could be closed but I guess they trust the drivers skills. Here is a pretty entertaining video – I didn’t know Chris was recording and I’m lucky there were no swears (it was worse than it looks the video is deceiving):
Phew!!! Our next stop was a geyser called Strokkur. It smelled of sulphur and it was too windy (for me) to walk up the the actual Geyser. Just a side note – did you know that the British pronounce geyser like: geezer (like an old man). This was a source of contention for me and Chris because every time he’d say it that way I’d correct him. It drove him crazy and eventually he just stopped saying it. At any rate, I wasn’t too disappointed to miss it (I mean I’ve seen Old Faithful in Yellowstone!). Had it been a warmer day or had I not just nearly died in a snowstorm I might have been a bit more keen.
Next stop: Gullfoss. Stunning. It was stunning. It was very reminiscent of Yellowstone in places, but I’ve never seen anything like this. There were a million steps to get to it (we found out at the bottom there was a car park there!). It was powerful and loud.
Those were the three main sights for the Golden Circle tour. We decided on the drive back to the hotel we’d take it slow and if we saw a church, town or landmark we’d stop and have a look. We found a quaint little church in the middle of nowhere called Skálholt. It is simply amazing how spread out people are the homes are. When we were reading about the church in the book it said it was “a convenient place to meet”. We had to laugh no where seemed “convenient”.
It was an uneventful drive back without any more storms. We decided since we had the car until the next morning we’d stop at Taco Bell. After we filled ourselves to the brim with yummy food we took advantage of the car. We drove a short drive to the coast. We weaved in and out of neighbourhoods filled with houses of many different styles and looks and painted bright colours of the rainbow. We saw a house with a little house in the front for the elves. I thought this was absolutely charming. They have a tradition of building little houses and even churches for the elves and fairies to live in. You have to keep a close eye to see the little houses but they are there – all over. We also drove to the LDS chapel. It was a Monday so we thought it would be locked up – it wasn’t – there were missionaries and people inside having a lesson. We only ran into one person who said a quick hello. We were free to explore. It would have been nice to speak to someone, but we didn’t want to interrupt them. While doing some research later that night we found out that the church in all of Iceland has less members than our ward here in Cambridgeshire.
The next day we had planned to go whale watching (another thing on my bucket list that wasn’t to be) but because of the high winds this was cancelled. We had a hop-on-hop-off bus tour booked but other than that we had a whole free day. So when we went to drop off the hire car we asked if we could hire it for another day and for a small fee (because of the issues with the sat nav the day before and a kind employee) we had the car for another day and we planned to drop it off at the airport the next day.
First we went and parked the car for the bus tour. It was an hour long and was absolute rubbish. Not because Reykjavik is so small there isn’t a whole lot to see, but because of the driver and the lack of stops. It was ridicules really and once we finished the tour we got back in the hire car and headed to the church – Hallgrimskirkja, in the centre of the city. We weren’t disappointed. We went to the bell tower and had some sunning views of the city.
I decided that next I wanted to get some fresh fish and chips. This desire lead us to driving all around the city with both of us getting frustrated. We finally decided to stop looking and plan for the rest of the day. We didn’t know if we should go North or South. We knew there was a huge space of Iceland marked out on our map that hire cars aren’t allowed to drive (the Highlands – after the day before I didn’t WANT to drive there). After skimming through the travel book we decided to go in search of the black sand beaches in Southern Iceland – our ending point Vik. We didn’t know what we’d end up seeing on the way but we were going to take our time, pray for good weather (I’d given up on wishing the wind away – it was there to stay), and head out. But not before going to pull out of a random car park to find a tender mercy and a reminder of my family back at home (a whole world away – what are the chances?):
We started our journey on what I can only describe as the Kansas of Iceland. Flat land as far as the eye could see. It was amazing to be in a city, in the mountains, on flat land, near volcanoes, black beaches, forests, rivers, and waterfalls and so many other changing scenery all with a few hours.
After about an hour we saw a waterfall in the distance. We didn’t know then that it is a major attraction and so we stopped and had a look. It was more simple than the one we saw the other day but it was spectacular in its own way. It was still quite frozen, Chris defied the laws of fate and gravity (along with travel insurance) and climbed up some frozen stairs to get some pretty beautiful pictures. During the summer months you can actually walk all the way around the waterfall, Chris wasn’t quite that brave, thank goodness!
That little person at the top of the stairs is Chris.
All of this scenery was under the shadow of the famous volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, that shut down air traffic for days a few years ago!
It was a surreal drive with the road right next to this massive volcano and the other mountains around it. There were huge boulders dotted around the sides of the road looking right we could see the ocean at some points and looking left we could see a volcano. It was still empty but there were still houses dotted around on the mountain sides. One of the best traditional houses were those that are built into the side of the mountain and the roofs are covered with grass. They blend right into the landscape.
Next we stumbled upon this:
It was getting late, but since it was late Spring it wasn’t getting dark until about 10:00 at night. We saw there was an outdoor museum in the little town. We tried our luck and hoped it wasn’t closed. There was a half an hour left and so we got tickets for free. I just love seeing how people live (I always tell Chris I should have been an anthropologist).
I still hadn’t seen the black sand beaches. We had started to follow any sign that had the symbol for something scenic (yes, I know that’s not the official term but it was a symbol that took us to some place neat). We weren’t disappointed – ever – from following the sign. We had no idea there was this much to see on the way to Vik!!
I could see the black sand… now I just had to get to the beach and I had no idea how to do that. We got to Vik and couldn’t find a paved way to the beach so we decided that just seeing it from a distance was going to be good enough. We stopped at a petrol station and stocked up on Icelandic chocolate and odd sweets for the drive home. As we were driving back, after about 10 minutes from the petrol station, we saw another one of those scenic signs and decided to see what was there – IT WAS THE BLACK SAND BEACH!!!! The wind had died down a bit and the sun was shining it was beautiful. Along with loads of black sand Reynisfjara features an amazing cliff of regular basalt columns resembling a a rocky step pyramid, which is called Gardar. Out in the sea are the spectacularly shaped basalt sea stacks Reynisdrangar. According to folklore, two trolls attempted to drag a ship to land but were turned to stone as daylight broke, turning them into into the Reynisdrangar stacks.
It was starting to get late and although it was still daylight outside, we decided to head home. We did make one more quick stop at an old church. We just stood there and enjoyed the sounds of nature. It was so peaceful and in the moment I could understand why people live in Iceland and seem to really be happy and enjoy it.
By the time we got back to the hotel the sun was just starting to set. We had decided earlier in the day that we’d try to see the northern lights. On the official weather scale they were at a 3 out of 10. The girl at the front desk was careful not to promise us that we’d see anything but told us you can still see them at a 3 and gave us directions to a place just outside of the city centre that had no natural light and was a popular place to watch from. So we waited until it got a bit darker and headed out. We waited there for a few hours, but it had been such a long couple of days we were both falling asleep in the car waiting. It was pretty clear that we weren’t going to see anything to see anything so we headed back to the hotel. It was a shame that we couldn’t see them but it just made me more determined to travel during the right time to try again.
The next morning we checked out and drove to the airport. We dropped of the car and waited for our flight. It was an uneventful flight back to the UK. When we were landing and I saw all the green fields and rape seed plants I knew I was home!
A cafe near our hotel. I took it as a personal message. Its called GINGER and the tag line is: Be good to yourself.
What could I possibly say to sum up my trip to Iceland. Firstly, I would say definitely hire a car to explore yourself. If you think you’ll be occupied in Reykjavik – you’re wrong. Plus there is so much beauty to see outside of the city centre. Another tip is that the hot water is all thermally heated making it smell of sulphur (rotten eggs). You shower in this and you smell of rotten eggs. You cant get away from it – bring perfume!
Iceland was spectacular and indescribable. If you get the chance to visit – pack your bags and GO! You wont regret it!