Icy Iceland sparks more joy than you can imagine
Icy Iceland sparks more joy than you can imagine
Iceland has a reputation for costing a small fortune and judging by the €20 club sandwiches for sale on board our flight, we braced ourselves from the get-go for some seriously expensive meals ahead. But our mission was to visit Iceland on a realistic budget. We wanted to see it all without paying through the nose. The whoosh of cold air hit us as we walked out of the terminal building. That giddy feeling of just wanted to play in the snow took over and it was impossible not to throw snowballs as we trudged over to collect our rental car. All rental cars in Iceland have to have winter tyres which was a relief as we set off towards Reykjavik. The cost of the rental car was 120 euro for three days with Reykjavik-rent-a-car. A taxi would have cost 60 euro each way anyway and as we would be using the car to explore the country, it made sense. It takes about 45 minutes to drive from the airport into the city of Reykjavik but as the Blue Lagoon is along the way, we figured it was a good idea to visit it on the way from the airport into Reykjavik.
It was the afternoon by the time we drove up towards this landmark lagoon. It is the most visited attraction in the country. We see the steam rising against the snowy back-drop and drive a little faster. It is a geothermal spa located in a lava field in an area called Grindavik. Its warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur which is good news for anyone suffering from skin-conditions like Psoriasis. In fact, the Blue Lagoon also operates a research and development facility to help find cures for other skin ailments using the mineral-rich water. It is a good idea to bring your own towel. The changing rooms are segregated by gender and you have to shower before putting on your swimming suit for hygiene reasons and there is special conditioner there that you have to lather on your hair to prevent it drying out. This is unavoidable and essential.
Some people are disappointed to learn that its a man-made attraction and bemoan the price (around €54 euro) but it is quite the experience. Walking outside into the steamy cold-warm felt ethereal and other-worldly. The milky-teal pool is seriously inviting and the whole place just feels really special. Stepping into the 39 degrees water while it is snowing all around you is squeal-inducing and highly recommended. The silica face masks are free to do and you can swim up to the bar to order a drink using the wristband you are given when you check in. I loved the romance of it all, but the experience is somewhat punctuated by people face timing their loved ones which can be quite annoying when you are trying to channel your inner mermaid.
After a wonderful two hours gliding and floating we packed ourselves back into the car and headed towards Reykjavik. Driving in another country can be daunting but the roads are great here and if they are not, due to bad weather, they get closed off immediately and drivers are directed to another safer route. I would recommend getting sat nav as it takes the pressure off when you are driving on unknown roads in the snow. We were staying at an Airbnb home which was five minutes walk to the shops and restaurants on the main street of Reykjavik and there was free parking outside. So far so not too expensive — and then we went for dinner.
Kol is a beautiful restaurant on Skólavörðustígur, just a couple of houses down from Hallgrímskirkja (the big church). I'd read some really good reviews and it is fair to say we had a fabulous dinner but the price was pretty extravagant (there was a steak on the menu for €94!) We had a few different milestones to celebrate so we justified splashing out a little (no steak though!) but if you are truly watching the wallet, this was unnecessary and there are plenty of nice, less expensive places to dine.
The Aurora forecast is a website where you can check the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights. I had been studying it tirelessly in the days before we travelled. It shows you where the lights might be more visible if the solar activity is strong. It is marked out of a scale from 0-9 with zero being extremely unlikely that there will be any visibility and 9 a very strong possibility that you could see them. It was hovering around 2/3 in the days that we were in Iceland so I was managing my expectations. I knew that the best chance, according to the weather charts, was on the first of our three nights. We grilled our waiter about where the best place was to find them and he, like all the Icelanders that we encountered on our trip, was more than obliging. He sat down with us for ten minutes and showed us some routes to take. Buoyed up and fueled with boundless enthusiasm, we changed into our warmest thermals and set out towards the largest ski resort in Iceland — Bláfjöll. It is open for night skiing so it is very popular with the local residents. Our friendly waiter had explained that it closes at ten so the lights are low and the sky clear — but he didn't really explain about the steep incline or the hairpin bends. The best time to see the lights is between 11pm and 2am so it was about midnight by the time we were chugging towards this mountain and scanning the sky.
We'd been told not to expect to see the lights in case we were disappointed — that is is better to view them as a bonus rather than the raison d'etre to travel all the way to Iceland. I'd obviously ignored this advice completely and was placing all my hopes on finally seeing the Aurora Borealis with my own eyes. The bright dancing lights of the aurora are, in fact, collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. But nothing can really explain how mesmerising they really are. Just as we were about to turn back from our wild goose chase, I spotted something in the sky that just looked misplaced. We jumped out and there they were. Pale green arcs stretching across the sky, rippling and glowing like nothing I've ever seen before. The shock of the cold and the beauty of what I was seeing was jolting. I've often moaned that my eyes don't see enough of the beauty of nature these days. I travelled a lot in my 20's and almost took for granted the awesome displays of nature I've been lucky enough to experience — Whitehaven beach in Australia, the wilderness of Patagonia, the wild jungle temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Now my eyes were being treated to a stunning light display that seemed like it was just for the two of us. We pulled into a safer spot and sat on the car bonnet in silent awe. It was definitely worth the chase. Nature was just showing off now.
Exhausted but exhilarated we fell into bed. It was my birthday and I couldn't remember the last time I'd been this happy. Next day it was time for another adventure. We accessed the Ring road which circles Iceland. We drove towards the South Coast towards the showstopping Skógafoss waterfall. As it falls, it kicked up tiered walls of spray. On sunny days, the mist creates shimmering rainbows. In Winter, when we were there the falls actually glitter with ice. The remote location makes you appreciate the ineffable force of nature that have shaped the landscape for millennia.
In fact, Iceland is a marvellous lesson in classroom geology. Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a giant 18,000 km long rift between two of the earth's major tectonic plates, the whole country is constantly shifting and flowing. Other attractions worth travelling to include the dramatic black beach at Vik where Game of Thrones fans will recognise and the Vatnajöull Ice cap where you can spend a few hours hiking up. The Golden Circle is another stunning area to explore. This is very accessible by car, especially in the summer months. It is lovely to have a guided tour to get some more details about the history and geography of the amazing sites you are seeing but for us, we enjoyed exploring the places ourselves and uncovering the interesting facts the old-fashioned way — through our guidebooks and maps. At around €250 per tour (and there are plenty of them) it can push up the price of the trip a great deal.
The weather in Iceland is unpredictable and dramatic. It went from blue skies to a raging snowstorm in a very short amount of time. We were lucky with the weather in general but if you don't feel comfortable driving in these conditions, it might be quite off-putting. The snow ploughs are always out and the local authorities are extremely on top of things when it comes to road safety so we felt confident driving ourselves.
Iceland shares Ireland's love of folklore. Their tales of fantastical encounters with elves and fairy folk are captivating and passed down generations. In fact, many Icelanders still hold these tales in high regard when it comes to the harsh and unforgiving environment in which they dwell. A recently proposed development was halted because of protests by locals over a road to be built through the ancient Gálgahraun lava field (said to be home to elves and dwarves). Just outside of Vik are the remains of sea pillars called Reynisdrangar. According to Icelandic folklore, the stones used to be trolls. The story goes that they were dragging a ship towards the shore but dawn broke and the trolls were turned to stone. Locals claim that if you drive near the cliffs you can sometimes hear their moans. These stories are not too dissimilar to our own tales of Banshees and Leprechauns.
For me, Iceland was the trip of a lifetime. It delivered everything I'd heard about it — we discovered it at our own pace and on a budget and had countless «am I really seeing this?» chills. The trip gave me as much mental relaxation as it did drama, and it certainly reset my perspective when it comes to the beauty and power of nature.
I'm a writer and mum to three adventure-loving cuties. I enjoy trying to show my family as much of the world as possible in-between the school runs and writing about our latest adventure.