The land of fire and ice

On the way back from our snowy and wintery Christmas in Canada, we stopped for a few days in Iceland to explore a small corner of this fascinating country. My camera was in action every day trying to get a few pictures that captured the nature of this surreal place. No – we didn’t see the northern lights but with so much else to see, I couldn’t be disappointed.

We rented a car while we were there which was a really good thing to do. It gave us the freedom to explore further afield to our own schedule but for the first couple of days of the trip we just hung out in the city of Reykjavik exploring the harbour, streets, cathedral and essentially trying to get over the jet lag.  It was difficult with such a short flight and such a significant time difference but we were pretty much there after a couple of days. Our apartment was great – it was very modern, well equipped, had lovely views across the harbour and lots of space for us to spread out in. It was also just a short walk to the centre of the city too.

My favourite trip was the day we drove around the Golden Circle. This is a very popular tourist driving route for people like us who’d hired cars and also for people who book on coach tours as well. The popularity slightly affected our enjoyment of the spectacles but not too much really. The first stop of the tour was a volcanic crater lake called Kerid. It was neat to see dawn breaking over the frozen lake at the centre of the volcano’s depression.

From there we moved on to the most spectacular waterfall of the trip which was called Gullfoss. The water just seemed to come from every direction falling dramatically into a ravine. The views around the area were pretty amazing too. Some of the paths in the area which would be readily accessible in the summer were closed off as they had turned to ice with the spray of the water. I wasn’t taking any chances on icy paths next to deep ravines either – despite my Canadian winter boots!

The highlight of the tour for me was the next stop at Geysir. I’d never seen a geothermal area before and I was a little awe struck by it. There were warnings that the temperature of the surface water was between 80-100C and there were spouts of steam coming out from everywhere. It was such a beautiful day which made for what I think are some spectacular pictures with the steam in the foreground and the snowy mountains in the background. The main geyser seemed to be erupting in about 5 minute intervals to the delight of the crowds of people waiting for it. I joined them and stood with my camera ready to go and managed to catch it in action.

After this, we found a lake containing geothermal springs called Laugarvatn. It was very picturesque and has become a popular spot for swimming.  There is a spa with geothermal baths there too.

The final stop of the Golden Circle was the national park of Þingvellir. I’m quite sure you could spend days there wandering around the trails and exploring the general vastness of the place. We got there as the sun was going down and used the hour or so we had at dusk to take a little wander and find the park’s church. The park was also very busy at the main viewing points and car park but I can imagine once you got away from the popular spots you could quickly find yourself on your own.

We had another day out to a place called Vik which was about a 2 and a half hour drive from the city. Because of the short days, it was dark for most of the drive in the morning. We arrived at Reynisfjara beach just before sunrise to the see the basalt columns, sea stacks and black sand beach. We walked down the beach and wondered what Stella would have thought of the black sand and crashing waves. There were lots of warnings about “deadly sneaker waves” (their words not mine) – unexpected waves that would come in and sweep you off your feet when you were least expecting it. These waves are the result of the fact that Iceland is situated on a plateau and the waves reach the shore from depth without being visible to you on the beach. If you google it you’ll find news stories of drownings and videos of the sneaker waves so not something to be scoffed at.

On the way back home, we found another place (off the beach away from those waves!) to view the cliffs from, a lighthouse and a couple of waterfalls (Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss). Getting fuel for the car was interesting as not all information was provided in English and the stations were unattended… Thanks to a helpful local we got there in the end.

The last day of the holiday we headed to the Reykjames peninsula where the airport is. This area has an active volcano system under it and there were large lava fields, hot springs and very little vegetation. We saw some cool cliffs which apparently are the home to lots of birds (including puffins!) in the summer, a geothermal water inlet that was used for teaching children to swim, a lighthouse, more geothermal areas including one used for power generation and a bridge that spans between the two continents of Eurasia and North America.

I really do recommend a visit to Iceland – although Reykjavik is a great city to wander – hire a car and explore the island as well. It is a fascinating, surreal and otherworldly place. But a lesson learned from us is that if you’re are desperate to see the northern lights, book on a tour.  These guys are able to coordinate and communicate where the lights are playing on any given night and your chance of seeing them increases significantly compared to trying to find them yourself!