Sunday 20 February 2011

Northern dream

Iceland was our second choice. We had originally considered a cruise up the side of Norway but had eventually decided against it because it would use up too much of my holiday. Due to the fact that I work for an American owned company I only get 23 days holiday. They really don’t understand the concept of holidays! Every since I was a lad I’ve wanted to see the Northern Lights. I was given a book as a small boy of the seven wonders of the natural world and there was a small chapter on the Aurora Borealis. Iceland offered the prospect of a short-break holiday with a possible chance to witness a great natural phenomenon. Of course there are no guarantees of seeing the lights with this sort of trip but we went in hope, and not much thought to what else we might experience.

Our flight to Keflavik was delayed by three hours. It was dark when finally arrived. We passed through immigration, picked up our luggage and went to collect our hire ‘car’. We had been promised a Hyundai Tucson, not dissimilar to our own beloved Honda CRV we thought. Avis in their wisdom had, generously they no doubt thought, upgraded us “at no extra charge” to a Nissan Patrol. More of a truck than a car we thought. Little did we know we would be glad of it later? Driving on the wrong side of the road in a strange humungous 4x4 in the dark and the rain we set off on the three hour drive to our hotel, just beyond Hella. We were too late for a meal although we could have had room service but at about 10.30pm we felt a large meal might be a bit too much. We sought sustenance in a tub of Pringles (other reconstituted potato-based snacks are available), and promptly toddled off to the bar. I so needed a beer after the challenging drive. Two beers later we decided to retire. We were just about to clamber into bed, well actually the lady was already there, when we got the call “the lights are about to happen”. You tick a box on a list in reception to say you wish to be called if the Northern Lights happen and they call your room whatever the hour. By the time we got there they had sadly faded, although by all account it wasn’t much of a showing at all. The night sky was pretty brilliant though. Because of the minimal light pollution so many more stars are visible than we would normally see at home. So a spectacular sight despite the lack of Northern Lights. We retired again.

It didn’t get light until after 8.00am whilst we were there. So we didn’t stir that early on our first morning. Like most hotels worldwide these days breakfast at the Hotel Ranga was a buffet affair. I tried to avoid being the Englishman abroad and ignored the sausages, eggs and bacon and started off with what might be described as the ‘continental’ meats. This was accompanied by a delicious selection of Icelandic bread. Meat consumed I decided to have seconds. I’d noticed the fish selection and felt that it just could not be ignored. Tuna, sardines and three sorts of pickled herring we on offer; I helped myself to a selection. The pickled herring was heavenly. I particularly liked the one that appeared to have been pickled with juniper berries. It would be pickled herring for breakfast from then on in Iceland.

Breakfast over we headed on out for our first day’s sight-seeing. We headed north to see some geysers. It was a long drive which included a stop off for lunch. The cold makes you hungry. Well, that’s our excused. We stopped off at a lovely little log cabin affair of a restaurant offering home cooked food. We were the only patrons for most of the time we were there. I chose the ubiquitous ‘winter soup’, a sort of lamb stew with hearty meat chunks and vegetables along with caraway seeds, which was most satisfying. The lady had a wild mushroom soup. Both soups we supplemented with more delicious Icelandic bread. Replete we continued our journey north. Apart from the visitor centre the first thing you notice about the landscape when you arrive at the geysers is that the ground leaks. Steam can be seen rising from the ground. And it’s all over the place. In the distance we could see the periodic machinations of Strokkur. We headed in its direction. On the way you pass all manner of pin holes and craterettes oozing steam and sulphurous boiling water. Each outlet very different from the one before. The smell of rotten eggs hangs in the air. But after a while you acclimatise and the smell becomes your friend. We walked up the hill to the centre piece of the show, Strokkur. A spectacular geyser that intermittently shoots boiling water to around 20 or 30 metres in the air. You can tell that it is about to blow by watching it. To begin with it bubbles then a dome of water pulsates over the crater until finally it ejaculates, sometimes once sometimes twice. It is a truly remarkable sight. Also on the site is ‘Geysir’ a dormant geyser that is the grand-daddy of them all. A huge crater of boiling water long since silted up. Most of the time we were at this site we stood and wandered around with our mouths open in awe. We came away thinking that if we didn’t see the Northern Lights it wouldn’t really matter as what we had just witnessed had made the trip worth it. Unfortunately due to a planning error we failed to take the opportunity to go to the waterfalls at Gullfoss. Never mind you can’t win them all. We returned to our hotel as happy bunnies. The weather was pretty atrocious with heavy rain and sleet. Little chance of the lights tonight we thought. We were right.

The next day saw us heading to the coast in the direction of Vik, stopping off on the way to visit a glacier. Getting to the glacier was a truly ‘off-road’ experience across a landscape that could well have doubled for an ersatz lunar environment. You run out of superlatives on Iceland and the glacier didn’t disappoint in that department. You really have to go to experience the shear magic. It’s big and it’s blue and oh so beautiful. Dumb-struck we headed onward to the coast at Vik; an amazing coastline with black sand. See the photo below. We returned to the hotel thinking that if we didn’t see the Northern Lights it wouldn’t really matter as what we had seen today had made the trip worth it. Back at the hotel during twilight we managed to pluck up the courage to take a dip in one of the outdoor hot tubs. Once you are in the hot tub it is wonderful. It is just the getting in and out and the walking barefoot on the snow that is a bit of a shock to the system. But hey, it had to be done. We sat in the tub as it went dark and wondered if the lights would show. Sadly it was another night of uninterrupted sleep.


 Coast at Vik

Our last full day saw us driving off to Reykjavik. Iceland is a brilliant country that I’d love to return to. The Icelanders appear to get almost everything right. Apart from, that is, beer in supermarkets and road signage. The road sign situation leaves a lot to be desired; in fact it’s even worse than in America which I’ve often felt left too much to be desired. Anyway, because of the poor signage (that’s our excuse) we ended up going the pretty way to Reykjavik. It was a scary drive up and up through the mountains and the snow and the ice and the low cloud. By the time we got to our destination, finding the centre of the city is not easy either, we had time for a meal and a brief wander around. So in the main the capital city, home to well over a third of the population, remains a mystery to us. Oh well, yet another reason to want to go back. The journey back to the hotel was much more direct and we made it back in good time. A sampling the local beer session had been planned by us for that evening. This consisted of us going to the bar and working our way through as many beers as we dared. One beer in and our session was interrupted, “the lights are showing” went up the cry. Drinks in the bar were abandoned; meals in the restaurant were treated with equal nonchalance. We got our coats. This time it was for real. On the last night of our holiday the gods had finally relented and given us the most fantastic experience. I lost count of the amount of times I heard the word ‘wow’, including from myself. If you’ve not seen the Northern Lights then it is very hard to explain how they make you feel. They appeared as white cloud like objects that twisted and undulated changing to a glowing green and then back to white. Afterwards I heard someone describe them as awesome. For once this word was used correctly. It is a particular irritation when people use the word awesome about everyday occurrences, because it never is. The Northern Lights are awesome!

We returned to the bar, keeping coats and cameras to hand, just in case, and continued with the beer drinking. With smiles on our faces and warm glows in our hearts we were happy, and it had nothing to do with the beer. Our holiday had delivered more than we could have hoped for. We went off to bed feeling very pleased with ourselves. We just nodded of when the phone rang. “The lights are about to show”, said the voice at the other end. Dazed and confused we slung clothes on and headed outside. They were much fainter this time, but they were there. A very short display this time, but we didn’t care, what we’d seen earlier had been so good.

The next morning we paid up, looked good, and bid our farewells to the Hotel Ranga. We climbed into the Nissan Patrol and set off for the airport. We had a detour planned. Quite close to the airport is the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa of note. On the journey the temperature went down to minus 9°. We sat, walked and swam outside in the lagoon while snow and ice lay around. The water is beautifully warm and the rising steam affords a measure of heat to the head. Around your feet the pools bottom varies between craggy lava pieces, smooth rock, soft silica mud and lava sand. You come out feeling soft, shiny and very relaxed. The Blue Lagoon is another must on any trip to Iceland.

We didn’t want to leave. Iceland is a truly magical country that gave us the best holiday that we’ve ever had. Nice people, nice environment, despite the cold. Icelandair does a good job as well, and despite being in economy class they actually give someone like me that isn’t vertically challenged enough leg-room. 

Iceland could well be described as a 'through the looking glass’ equivalent of Cyprus (destination of our holiday in September last year) both quite barren islands superficially appearing to offer limited flora and plain architecture. One’s hot, whilst the other is plainly rather chilly to say the least. We loved Iceland. We never wish to return to Cyprus. We want to go back to Iceland.

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