The big decision now for Kate’s birthdays are where shall we go to celebrate? Last year we drank port in Portugal and this year we went to Iceland to see the Northern Lights.
As the title of our Blog suggests, this is our OE, which officially began last year when we set off on the 25th January for the Netherlands, via San Francisco. Since then we have been to Belgium, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Portugal and now Iceland. They are of course all special in their own way but Iceland perhaps best illustrates mother nature at its finest.
An easy two and a half hour journey from Bristol and we were skirting the south coast of Iceland; the weather was beautiful and the views even better. This was a good sign maybe? The weather that had been very marginal for the two weeks prior to us arriving had not improved with the coming of spring. The original plan was to drive the ring road around Iceland starting and ending in Reykjavik but about four days out from departure we realised that the road between Hofn in the east and Husavik in the North West was unlikely to be passable (Iceland has a great road condition website that all travellers should visit). So in keeping with our flexible travel theme we cancelled our hotels in the north and decided to play it by ear and re-book if the road conditions improved.
As you know our normal travel style is to pick a destination, agree maybe a couple of “must-do’s” and then decide exactly where we will go, once we are there. With Iceland being predominantly a summer tourist destination, however, we did a lot more research prior to leaving and had put together a fully planned itinerary, with all our accommodation booked (unheard of for us and it felt a bit like we were going on a bus tour…scary)! Having to change plans due to weather conditions came as a huge relief, I have to say. We did give ourselves a bit more of a challenge with this trip though, when we decided to go ‘old school’ and use a road map to find our way around.
The plan for the first day was to travel to Hella via the Golden triangle. Although cold (2 degrees celcius), the sun was shining and the vista was stunning. We stopped a couple of times along the roadside just to admire the views and walk in the snow! The Strokkur Geysir was our first official tourist stop. Coming from New Zealand, we have of course seen a fair amount of geothermal activity. What we learnt: watch where you stand when viewing a geysir, and if there is a walk up a hill nearby always do it.
The next stop was a visit to one of Iceland’s many waterfalls; each one different but all impressive. Gulfoss is probably the most visited waterfall in Iceland, as it is an easy day trip from Reykjavik. It was spectacular but it was by no means the best.
Kate picked Iceland because she wanted to see the Aurora Borealis and our first night in Hella didn’t disappoint. The forecast was for a Level 9 Aurora (extreme) which is very rare, the weather forecast was for clear skies, so we were feeling rather excited. The light show was amazing with shafts of greens, red, purples and blues dancing through the sky for about three hours. We had been in Iceland about 12 hours and we’d already ticked most of the “must-see” boxes.
I’d like to compliment the Icelandic Met Service on their forecasting, it was spot on the whole time we were there. If they said it would be overcast in the morning and snowing in the afternoon it was exactly that! Day 2 we planned to go to Kirkjubæjarklaustur via the main road but Nonni the B&B owner we stayed with in Hella suggested we head inland first, as it was more scenic and had the added advantage of being able to climb Stora-Dimon (178 metres) for an elevated view of the surrounding river valley. The views were typical Iceland and the temperature and wind chill were as well. We were very glad of the thermals, down jackets and hats once we made it to the top.
More waterfalls followed with Seljalandfoss and Gljufrabui. We got to walk behind the Seljalandfoss which was a bit slippery but very very cool.
It started to snow soon after leaving Gljufrabui and by the time we got to Kirkjubæjarklaustur there was three to four inches on the ground. It is certainly the most snow I’ve driven in since leaving Invercargill.
Other than seeing the northern lights, one of the places we wanted to visit was Jokulsarlon Lagoon. On the way we detoured to Svartifoss. This waterfall was the most interesting as it washed over dark lava columns made of basalt, which are both stunning and an inspiration to architects in Iceland.
Jokulsarlon Lagoon was a grey, misty and moody sight when we arrived. It is surrounded on three sides by mountains but none were visible through the cloud. It made for some lovely photos and it had a very serene feeling to it. As it happened we would be back the next day to a total different view of this fascinating place.
Hofn, our final stop along the south east coast, is a fishing village and a popular tourist destination. We stayed just outside the village and the Aurora decided to grace us once more with its presence. This night was a totally different experience to the first, with green being the predominant colour and a more silky flow to the light waves. The backdrop of the mountains in this part of the country added that something special to the night.
We were late to bed but I managed to get up early to see the sunrise (I know it doesn’t happen very often!). I do, however, like the quiet of early mornings and then there is the added advantage of nobody else being around and ending up in your photos. Another benefit of being in Hofn was that we got to watch a partial eclipse of the sun. Talk about pack a lot into a short holiday.
This is where the holiday deviates from the original itinerary. The roads up north weren’t looking good so we decided to head back to Reykjavik the way we had come and because it was a beautiful day we got to see everything that was hidden in the mist during the previous two days. Jokulsarlon was like a different place with magnificent mountains surrounding it. I wouldn’t say it was better but certainly different.
Kate did what she does best and found us some great accommodation just outside Vik for a couple of nights, so we had some time to explore the area that was covered in snow just two days earlier. Vik is a small seaside village on a very rugged black sand beach with volcanic basalt columns rising out of the ocean.
We spent one day heading into a valley in the hills, where there was a hot water pool for swimming. I would have called it semi cool (tepid) rather than hot but the surroundings made up for the lack of water temperature. We then visited one of the many icelandic glaciers.
We had a quick stop at Dyrhólaey on our way to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, but it was bitterly cold and you couldn’t see more than 50 metres, so we decided to go back and have another look; we weren’t disappointed. Much better views and we got to walk up to the lighthouse. I even got to take off my down jacket so you might say it was quite tropical.
We had an over-night in a farming area near Selfoss, and then it was off to Reykjavik and a whale watching cruise. I’m afraid we saw very little of two, or maybe just the one, Minke whale and had a rough ride on a cold and very windy day. We had a couple of hours prior to the cruise so we had a look around Reykjavik, which was quite picturesque. The Hallgrímskirkja is an example of one of the buildings inspired by the basalt columns like those at Svartifoss.
One final note on food, try the gas station hotdogs with everything (some are wrapped in bacon); they are cheap and very tasty! We tried a couple of the local dishes as we always do, horse tenderloin (maybe not for everyone – sorry Rose and Katrina) and Arctic Char (a freshwater fish similar to salmon) were also very good. We even managed to find a good coffee in Reykjavik:)
We still have a lot of Iceland to see but if the south and south east of the country are anything to go by, it is definitely worth another visit. Lovely landscapes, wild weather and very few tourists anywhere in March. You couldn’t ask for much more for your birthday.