In November, I travelled to Iceland, and never before have I been so bowled over by country, a landscape. Being British, it has felt natural that previous holidays have been sun-seekers; travelling to find that guaranteed warmth that England, bless it, just cannot promise. But last November, curve ball; Iceland.
We arrived at their only international airport, Keflavik, and went to pick up our car. A huge amount of planning went into this trip. Iceland isn’t cheap, so we were determined to see as much of Iceland and its many wonders as possible. And do it on a budget. This budget, we decided, meant getting a car. The big sights to see on our list were –
- The Blue Lagoon
- The Golden Circle – including Gullfoss waterfall, Thingvellir national park and Geysirs
- Skogafoss waterfall
- Seljalandsfoss waterfall
- Solheimajokull glacier
- The Northern Lights
Yes, a big list to manage on a budget – we wanted to spend less than £500 each over five days on everything – flights, accommodation, food, excursions – and doing it all without compromise. You know what? We did.
Hiring the car was, at first, a money choice. As Iceland is full to bursting with natural wonders that other countries can only dream of, the tourism industry is well set. Therefore there are a vast number of coach trips offering to take you round the Golden Circle, many, too, including that sought after phenomenon, The Northern Lights – or rather Aurora Borealis. At first glance, we were really tempted as you’d be guaranteed to catch the sights and be with people best experienced to find the green sky streaks. But then what do you do with your other four days? And most were really expensive. But the reason that clinched it for us in the end was the freedom. When visiting a country that is known for its natural beauty, why restrict yourself to the routes and times that a tour would hold you to? We have maps. We can do it. That was our attitude and it was one that made our trip absolutely unforgettable. It was me, my boyfriend Christian, our tiny but wildly capable car and Iceland. That’s it.
After picking up the car from the airport – there are a large number of services available and most will include a transfer from the airport – we went straight to The Blue Lagoon. As we were landing, the plane thrust itself against tiny needles of snow, spitting at the windows, but the weather didn’t hold for long. We had been warned that Iceland weather was much like England just worse, and colder, but we were amazingly lucky. The Blue Lagoon is incredibly easy to find as there is one major road that comes out of Keflavik and goes north to Hafnarfjörður and, just the other side of that, the capital Reykjavik. (So many of the Icelandic words at first appeared incredibly alien to a foreign tongue. I had to copy and paste Hafnarfjörður into this as for the entire trip we referred to it as Hafnarfnarfnarfnarf. We later came to understand that many of their longer words are just made up of a bunch of shorter ones. Simple. However, not knowing the shorter ones kept us out of the loop there.) Knowing that we’d pass The Blue Lagoon on our way to our Airbnb apartment in Hafnarfnarfnarf we decided that spending the afternoon at the infamous spa would be the best introduction to Iceland. And it was. The whole place is beautiful. The surrounding lands appear barren as the road cuts through volcanic rock which is home to moss and nothing else. Coming to The Lagoon, coats and scarves wrapped around us in defence of the cold – which felt brutal compared to what England’s November calls cold – we entered the glass building rising from a surround of steam. Having booked ahead (which is cheaper) we were able to jump the queues and head straight in, staying for as long as we’d like. We said ‘the whole day’ to the attendant who laughed at us kindly and said ‘maybe till your skin turns wrinkly’.
There is one main pool area which everyone visits. I thought it would be packed, but on the contrary, when the wind blew hard it would feel as though there was no-one there but ourselves as the steam hid everyone else from view. Hot underneath the water, fresh and cold above. The floor is made of volcanic black sand so that whilst wading through the water, your feet are nicely exfoliated. We dove down and filled our empty water cups with the sand and rubbed it over our elbows and shoulders. Three curious British woman sidled over and asked where we’d found it, we trawled the bottom again and passed them the full cup – they waded off very pleased with themselves. To the left, hot water gushed in a hard waterfall, a sauna sat relatively deserted, and in-water massages commenced in a private pool. There was also a spot where you could get a mud face mask, everyone floats around as if having been dipped in melted wax. We were later able to catch a trendy, bearded fellow paddling around with a bowl of green algae mask which was a smoothing post-treatment. We were overly prune-like by the time we left as the sun set and the sky turned pink at the horizon, but it was totally worth it.
We then drove on to Hafnarfnarfnarf where we were staying. We decided not to pay the higher prices of Reykjavik as, really, the capital city is not the central attraction of Iceland, so being just outside suited us and our budget perfectly. Upon arrival at our Airbnb abode, our hosts welcomed us (they rented out the apartment below their own) and told us that the weather looked prime for the Northern Lights – cold, crisp and mostly clear. We dashed up to a small hill apparently known to inhabit the fairies of the area (which is, itself, known for the Vikings) to get a clear view of the sky. In the distance, Reykjavik shone. Was there a glimmer of green in the sky? A streak just over the mountains? We were utterly underwhelmed. Was this what we were likely to see?
After standing in the cold for almost an hour, we gave up and returned home.
The next day’s activities had been planned before we reached Iceland. With four days in which to soak up as much of Iceland as we could, we did a lot of planning. We decided on alternating our busy and our calm days. This day would be a busy day; we’d booked in to a glacier walk at Solheimajokull on the south coast. We chased the rising sun in the morning and drove at the feet of snow capped mountains and past field upon field of rotund, shaggy sheep. I’m a big fan of sheep. After a 2.5 hours drive, we arrived and met with the walking guides. They kitted us out in harnesses and spiky crampons to fit under our shoes. One adventurer asked, ‘why do we need these?’ tugging at her harness. ‘To look cool’ our guide replied. It was, of course, actually in case we slipped down a crevasse and needed hauling out. Thankfully, the harnesses were used on only one occasion by a handful of people who wanted to tip themselves ever-so-slightly over the edge of an enormous crevasse whilst being fully secured to the ice and the guide.
As we walked up towards the glacier, the winds absolutely tore down, forcing tears from our eyes. It was highly unpleasant and I brought my scarf right up to my eyes and my hat right down for as much protection as possible. Then we turned a corner, I parted my woolly snug, and there was the glacier – it looked as though it had been paused mid crawl towards the lake at its base, jagged lines streaking up to the apex. Our guide informed us that this glacier could be gone in as little as 50 years due to global warming. You could actually see it diminishing, year upon year. The tours are based on the guides knowing the formation of the glacier. However, many tours in New Zealand have already stopped because the course is just too dangerous, unpredictable and now unfamiliar. If you want to go, go now. It is incredible. And won’t be around much longer.
With no injuries incurred, we headed back and hopped into an ice cave en-route. We de-geared and thanked our wonderful guide, whose English was impeccable. (For a moment I actually thought he was Scottish.)
On our way home, we pulled up at Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. The first is a classic, overwhelming waterfall and we scaled the many many (many) steps to see it from the top. Across the other side we could see fluffy white blobs of sheep dangerously close to the edge.
We moved on relatively quickly – light was fading fast by this point, around 3pm – and we drove further on a few minutes to Seljalandsfoss, a very impressive waterfall which cascades into a well-like expanse of water and has a gap behind it wide enough to walk all the way around. As we walked up, we realised that hard soled walking boots were not great for walking on ice-glazed stones. It was incredibly slippery and at some points our bums skimmed the rocks as we crouched so low to the ground. November is a month when it’s starting to get really cold in Iceland and we saw it then – each thin blade of wiry grass which stuck out from the cliff next to the waterfall was completely encapsulated in ice like a hair in a glass test tube, completely smooth and glistening. It was quite surreal. We finally made our way to the back of the fall, the water roaring, we the only ones there. Christian took his photos whilst I… at first appreciated the beauty, then got rather cold and increasingly wet. We then headed cautiously back, jumped in the car and turned the heating on full blast and headed home in the dark.
Looking out of the window all the way home, the Northern Lights still escaped us. Though the sky was, again, mostly clear and free from the city’s light pollution, we didn’t see a thing. Just as we stepped inside our door however, we pulled back. There was a strange green mist hovering high above the Hafnarfjörður harbour. We crept round to the front of the apartment, careful not to scare it away, and eventually it grew and evolved into bright, flinching streaks of green dancing above our heads. We scrambled up to the hill top again and there saw the full picture, an enormous wisp of green stretching over the whole city like traffic on slow exposure.
The third day would be more relaxing – a chance to explore Reykjavik. It’s an attractive city, with small streets lined with small, charming shops, many of which look like quaint bird-boxes. At the top of these is the church, Hallgrímskirkja, probably the central feature of the capital city, and it appears proud, impressive and a little stark. We took the obligatory photos outside then headed in where we were greeted by the sound of the organ. We sat for a few moments, appreciated the surround. It’s lovely but no Notre Dame, so we soon left to see what else Reykjavik had to offer. The answer there was, for us, not a whole lot. Unlike larger cities like Barcelona, Paris and London, there wasn’t a huge amount to see. We nipped into the Perlan – an impressive architectural dome just outside the city centre designed by Ingimundur Sveinsson which houses shops, exhibitions and eateries. Most important was the view from the top where you could see over the whole of Reykjavik and the snow-capped mountains on the other side. We topped the evening off with a treat – after receiving a recommendation we visited a small steakhouse in Hafnarfjörður called Gamla Vínhúsið. We hadn’t taken much note of the Icelandic cuisine. Our trip was about the sites, and with Iceland’s relatively high prices, we didn’t splash out on dinners – we actually brought some food with us to have as picnics in the car on our various road trips. But that evening was different. We’d been recommended this steakhouse which was well priced and would serve us the one Icelandic meat we wanted to try – whale. I’ll admit that I whimped out and had beef steak, which was gorgeous, but Christian had the whale. Minke whale I believe. We felt a little bad but… when in Iceland… (Though, saying that, neither of the Icelandic people who had recommended us the restaurant had actually ever eaten whale – clearly not as widely eaten as it used to be.) It was a very strange meat. I had expected it to be a little like fish (I know, whales aren’t fish, but still), I thought there might be some hint that this steak had surfaced from the sea, yet there wasn’t. It was cooked very rare, pretty much blue right inside actually, simply seared and heavily seasoned. Its texture was similar to beef but more fibrous, slightly more sinewy – probably why it was cooked so rare – and the taste was more intense. Overall, really good. But I’m not sure I could eat an entire steak of it so was glad to be able to go halves.
Day four was our Golden Circle day. Situated just outside of Reykjavik and Hafnarfjörður, it was really easy to drive to. There are a huge number of tour coaches which go there daily, offering various combinations, but with the main attractions literally being on a circular road, it was a simple drive to hit them all in the day. First, we drove through Thingvellir (Þingvellir) national park which was a beautiful landscape, with meringue-like sheep drifting through the snow and jagged rock jutting through the mossy ground. Our first stop was at Gullfoss waterfall. A wide, double stepped waterfall. Now, November is winter, probably not even winter at its most spiteful, but it was still a challenge to stand and look at the roaring waterfall. The spray and the wind coming off the fall is epic – there’s no more fitting word for it – so wrap your scarf, hood, snood (whatever you have) around your face and just breath it all in. It was beautiful, but brief. We couldn’t stay for long. We jiggled in the cold for five minutes, took a few pictures risking numb fingers outside of gloves, glanced at each other then staggered back to the warmth of the car. There’s also a great shop up here – of course, one of the most popular stops on the circle. But you must check out those sheep skins.
Next stop – Geysirs. Unimaginable pools of hot water, collecting in natural springs and, some, erupting regularly. Arriving at the site of the Geysirs – you know when you get there as suddenly there’s a burst of cars as if from nowhere – you then follow the paths up to the main Geysir, Strokkur. You can’t miss it. Erupting every few minutes, it can reach up to 40 metres high. Take it easy in winter walking up to the Geysirs – even in our walking boots we were sliding around. Actually, I saw a number of locals wandering about in soft soled trainers. I imagine these hug the icy stones a lot more than flat, hard soled, heavy duty walking boots. Surrounding Strokkur are a number or smaller, mainly dormant geysirs. All beautiful to look at with the yellow and blue sulphurous earth encircling them. Also, keep your eye out for little puffs of steam pushing up from the ground. It’s a long old day, but there’s absolutely nothing boring about driving around the amazing sites of Iceland in this particular area, with arguably the most beautiful collection of natural treasures in the country. Though you can easily visit these sights in the comfort of a shared coach, having a car afforded us wonderful freedom, and our car was so small that we felt incredibly close to the outside as we drove along.
Day five; home time. Sigh. But there was time for a little more exploring yet. Having ticked off everything on our Iceland bucket list, day five was up for grabs. So we took a recommendation from our Icelandic hosts which would take us vaguely towards Keflavik airport. Our destination was Seltun – a small, natural collection of hot springs surrounded by white hills. We drove through the Reykjanes Peninsula, stopping off at the expansive Kleifarvatn Lake in the centre and exploring the black sand beaches and the caves.
Then we continued on to our destination in the Krisuvik geothermal area. First you saw the steam. Then you wound down your window and you smelt the sulphur – an eggy, muggy smell. The place was deserted when we pulled up – clearly every other tourist was on the Golden Circle carousel rather than this, a smaller phenomenon. Around us was steeped in snow, then, close at hand, the snow had shrunk away from the hot streams and bubbling pools, revealing blue, yellow, and golden earth and stone. In areas, the water was literally boiling – almost hard to fathom.
As a final and unexpected stop, it was breath taking. And it felt as though it summarised Iceland perfectly; a hard, uncompromising landscape of jagged rocks, rolling roads cutting through frosty white valleys, unsuspecting hot springs revealing rich, bronze earth, and absolutely no-one to be seen. We hauled ourselves away from Iceland’s magnificent landscape and eventually onto the plane, taking us back to London, which would feel like another world entirely.