With the snow falling here over the weekend it reminded me so much of my recent trip to Iceland. Having worked over the Christmas holidays I booked myself a weekend away in January so that I could allow myself those three days of eating, drinking, and resting that everyone else got to enjoy. Indulgent, I know, but I had been working hard! I chose Iceland because it is only about three hours on a plane and also, because we had had such a mild winter up to that point I really wanted to go somewhere that would feel Christmassy and snowy. I picked the perfect spot!
I flew with Icelandair – I won't go into details, but unfortunately I have to say I personally had a dreadful customer service experience with them, though my friends who travelled with me didn't. So I guess it goes to prove that one bad experience doesn't necessarily mean the whole company is bad!
That notwithstanding, we flew into Rekyavik on a Saturday, late afternoon. I honestly had no idea what to expect, but I have to say I got very excited when I saw that there was snow everywhere.
We took a taxi into Rekyavik, firstly, because there was a small group of us but mainly because we were so keen to get going we didn't want to wait for a bus! (Yes we were like a bunch of overexcited teenagers!). I had also heard that in Rekyavik they heat some of the roads with the volcanic geothermal waters underground in order to keep them clear of snow so I was keen to see if it was true.
En route to our hotel our taxi driver informed us that there had been an earthquake just a day or two before. A timely reminder that this is a volcanic island (as if anyone who ended up grounded or stranded because of the volcanic ash clouds could forget). Nevertheless, worth bearing in mind should any uncontrollable shaking happen, any shaking that was not cold induced that is!
We stayed in a perfectly good, standard 3-star hotel that we got as part of our package. The reason we chose it over a 4-star option we could have had was that it served breakfast as part of the price, which the 4 star hotel didn't! We had heard how expensive Iceland was so we thought this was the best option. Also, who wants to get out of bed in the morning and get dressed to go out in freezing temperatures and snow blizzards just to get your morning coffee?
The friends I was travelling with were more organised than me and had pre-booked a table at a restaurant for dinner. The restaurant was called the Fish Market, and the head chef there is referred to in the press here as the Icelandic, female version of Jamie Oliver. So off we went… This, as it turned out, was the perfect way to start a weekend in Rekyavik. It is a very popular restaurant with lots of business men, well-to-do local families and couples wanting to create a good impression on their date for the evening. As you can see people watching is one of the fun parts of travelling for me. We ordered the Chef's menu, but what we didn't realise was that it was 12 courses! A literal gastronomic feast. There were some meat dishes in there and a Minky whale dish as well that none of us was willing to try, so after a little discussion with the chef herself, some replacement seafood dishes were organised.
We had such a good time at the restaurant and bearing in mind how expensive Iceland can be it turned out to be quite good value if you consider the amount of food we were served and the fact that we had a couple of bottles of wine as well (Alcohol is very expensive on the island). £75 per head in total it cost us. Expensive, yes, but we were only ever going to do this once. So if you ever go please do give it a try – you wont regret it!
We headed back to our hotel and off to bed straight away with plans to call each other at 8am to meet for breakfast. I woke up in the middle of the night and looked at might watch to see that it said 8am. Must be broken I thought, well it was still pitch black outside. I awoke half an hour later with my phone in my room ringing. I was a little confused – who could be calling my hotel room in Iceland in the middle of the night? It was my friends asking if I was coming down for breakfast? I was now really confused. What I hadn't realised was that during the Icelandic winter they don't get a lot of sunlight and my watch wasn't broken, it really was 8.30 am!
So off I went for breakfast. It was another feast! As full up as I still was from the restaurant the night before I proceeded to have about half a dozen different dishes for breakfast as I looked out at the night time / morning sky and the snow falling. I was really enjoying this. This is exactly what I had missed at Xmas. It helped that in Iceland they keep all the Christmas lights up until the end of January because there is so little natural light at this time of the year. Sunlight finally dawned at about 11am. As we had nothing planned for the day we decided to head out into Rekyavik town itself and have a wander. It had been raining the day before we arrived so the town wasn't as snowy as we had thought which made it easier to get around.
We went to the Hallgrimskirkju, the famous church that looks like a concrete rocket about to blast off into space. It is such a significant and imposing landmark that you just have to visit it. If you do visit, I recommend that you go up to the top of the tower and appreciate the panoramic views that await you of the harbour and the patchwork quilt of coloured rooftops that stretch out before you. Be prepared , though, for the biting gusty wind that howls around the tower, its freezing. And if you are there when the bells chime be sure to cover your ears!
I never really worked out the opening hours of the shops there either. I love to shop (or at least bowse) so was looking forward to having a good nose around but I got the impression that the shops opened when they liked, only after the sun came up and only if the weather was good. I could be wrong but that was the impression I got. It was so quirky and idiosyncratic, but I liked it. None of this homogenised shopping mall, chain store feel of so many places that you visit. It really was quite different.
I even went down to the lake where there were gaggles of Icelandic geese and a gathering of wild swans who looked like the were graceful ladies at a tea party – until they thought you had any food that is – then they all turned into crazed avian psychopaths. It was actually hilariously funny, they would waddle up to you, stand a few inches away and stare you down, as if to say 'come on, its freezing and I haven't got all day, just give me whatever you've got in that pocket!' It almost felt like they were working in teams mugging unsuspecting tourist for stray crumbs! They didn't nip or bite or squawk but they did certainly have an attitude!
That night we were booked to go and see the Northern Lights, the main reason for my visit. As they are a natural phenomena there is never any guarantee of seeing them so it was a risk. Suitably wrapped up against the elements we headed off in the evening and drove out to a peninsula to spend a lovely, and hopefully magical evening gazing up at the stars ….. or so we thought!
As we drove off into the night the sleet storm descended but on we headed. I had my fingers crossed, but knew it was probably a waste of time. We got to the penninsula and stood out in a gale and a sleet storm for 2 hours until 1am in the morning but in the end we had to admit defeat and got back on our bus frozen and dejected and headed back to our hotel.
Next morning breakfast was another Bacchanalian feast to set us up for the day. We had pre-booked a trip to the famous Blue Lagoon, a natural geo-thermal pool, heated by the volacanos which surround it. Again I wasn't sure what to expect, but it is exactly what it says it is – like a big outdoor bath; hot, steaming and relaxing. As you float around (with as much of your body under the water at all times as possible) snow gently falls on your head, it is a strange sensation but a wonderful one too.
After the disappointment of the Northern Lights the night before we decided that we needed a little pick-me-up so we tried to book some treatments. We were lucky to get the last couple of slots available that afternoon for back massages. (Note, if going, book everything in advance!)
We ordered big fluffy white robes to wrap ourselves up in and off we headed to get changed. It is truly a natural wonder and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its easy to see why. Its breathtaking. The contrast of the crisp white snow against the backdrop of the black volcanic rock of the mountains that surround you and the deep blue of the waters is something to behold. And in case all of that is a little to airy-fairy for your tastes there is a bar right on the edge of the lagoon so you can sip on your Blue Lagoon Cocktails whilst remaining in the water. At least this is what we did, accompanied by a fun lady that we met there by the name of Stef. An American lady holidaying alone - fun, lively and overflowing with positivity she added a whole new dimension to the experience, especially after a couple of cocktails.
There is something great about travelling and meeting new people. At the lagoon I got chatting to quiet a few people which was, for some reason surprising. Stef, was the most surprising of all. As gregarious and fun as she was I could tell she was a lady of great depth from the way she talked about her life and her work. I learned that she had written a book, The Dream, a free book, which she gave me a copy of and I promise to blog about it here when I have finished, because having just started it I am already caught in its thrall.
Suitably merry by my cocktails I headed off for my back massage which happened in a quiet corner of the lagoon sectioned off from the rest. Its always a thrill to have a feeling of exclusivity (I think it comes from my working class upbringing which meant that growing up in a small crowded house were everything had to be shared meant there was nothing that was ever exclusive!)
Upon arrival for your appointment for your back rub they slather you in Silica Oil, a natural oil extract from the silica mud to be found in the lagoon which you are free to rub onto your face like a mud mask. They then place you on what I can only describe as a very thick yoga mat, face up, floating in the water. A thick fleece blanket is placed over you and your treatment begins. Remember you are floating in the geo-thermal waters, face-up. Your masseur stands behind you at your head and massages your back from underneath, all the while they gently spin you slowly around in the water and with your eyes closed it has a dreamy ethereal feel to it all as your aches and pains are soothed away. A natural, and legal high descends upon you. It is amazing.
After 4 hours in the water and looking like a stewed prune it felt like time to leave. We ate out again that night at a venue called The Harpa, the national concert hall. A structure all glass and metal. We were seated on the third floor right by the glass looking out onto the harbour and the boats and the twinkling lights of the peer. A romantic venue, if that is what you are looking for. We were a group of 3 that evening so not a lot of romance going on but definitely a romantic view as we ate, drank and made merry.
We flew home the next day after braving a snow blizzard that caused total white-outs on the road to the airport, but our taxi driver didn't seem to mind! We were as pale and white as the snow and frozen with fear as we ran the gauntlet of snow flurries and oncoming traffic, but all was fine in the end.
I would certainly recommend a trip to Iceland for anyone who is looking for a short break and they aren't really interested in Sunshine or too much historical architecture (both of which I love by the way). As for the Northern Lights, well they're pot luck, but then so many of the best times I have ever had in life are all about taking a chance. I didn't get to see what I wanted but I did have my eyes opened to a wonderful city and a beautiful country full of natural wonders – what more could you ask for?