The Land of Fire and Ice
My writers' group recently set us a challenge of writing a travel article for which I was delighted to receive a Commended on the adjudication night. I did enjoy reminiscing on my trip to Iceland, so decided to share the article here on my blog:
The Northern Lights, or the aurora borealis have always been on my bucket list, so I was delighted when my husband and I booked up for a long weekend to Iceland. Regularly highlighted as one of the most likely places to see the stunning natural phenomenon, we were fairly confident our luck would be in.
We learned how to pronounce Reykjavik, the country’s capital, and ordered our Icelandic Krona. The conversion rate would be tricky to adapt to, since £1 equated to about 172 krona. Warm clothes were packed as we headed to the airport for our 2 and a half hour flight. Sitting back in our admittedly cramped seats, we enjoyed a glass of wine, departing for a rare child free short break. Everything ran to time with no lost luggage, and after a reasonable bus transfer we arrived at the Cabin Hotel, hungry and eager to explore.
Iceland has a reputation for long hours of darkness, but our trip was at the end of February, so the average was around 10 hours of daylight, although by 6.30pm it was pretty much pitch black. Having unpacked we donned our extra layers to face the elements, the thick pristine snow a pleasing contrast to the night sky. Not wishing to venture too far on our first evening and with rumbling bellies to feed, we found a nearby hotel with an appealing restaurant. Our waitress was most helpful with a pleasing accent in her perfect English. We enjoyed our meals, politely declining her suggestion of a local delicacy; fermented shark.
The buffet breakfast at the hotel was passable, nothing special, however we soon discovered a small cafe nearby selling many different varieties of Skyr. Possibly you have heard of this trendy yoghurt now, but in 2016 we knew nothing about it. Low in fat and high in protein, it’s actually a kind of cheese, but eaten like yoghurt with many different flavours and topping to choose from. We became quite fond of the “Viking superfood” and introduced it to our kids on our return to Scotland.
Only there a few days, we had a lot to pack in, and eating out child free was quite a high priority...not a chicken nugget in sight. My personal highlight came from a restaurant near the harbour. Named Icelandic Fish and Chips, what it lacked in originality, it more than made up for in flavour. Not quite sure what to expect, recalling the fermented shark and having heard rumours of whalemeat, we entered slightly apprehensively. However, the food was excellent and controversially, I would dare to say I enjoyed Icelandic fish and chips more than the British version. The fish was cooked in a delicious, light batter, served on a refreshing mango and spinach salad, with perfectly roasted potatoes on the side. Skyronnaise flavoured with corriander and lime was the perfect accompaniment.
Daily walks along the harbour side with some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen was something really special. A striking modern interpretation of a viking ship sits proudly on the harbourside. The metalic sculpture a fitting tribute to the Viking heritage of the land of ice and fire.
Finally it was time for our booked excursion to see the Northern Lights. Picked up from our hotel at 7.30 by a luxurious coach, we headed off on our 3 hour adventure. Our guide was a super enthusiastic woman named Helga and as the trip continued it became clear she was quite a character. Dressed in a warm Nordic style cardigan, with one of those extra long pointy hoods which look more suitable for a garden gnome than an average person, she was a true talent at storytelling. After her obligatory scientific explanation for the spectacular natural lights we would be seeing in the clear nightime sky, her real passion took over as she delved into Icelandic folklore. Tales of elves, trolls and even a mysterious sea creature thought to be a distant relative of Nessie were certainly entertaining, particularly when told with such passion by someone who was determined to make us all believe these creatures existed. The long bus journey to our viewing point passed quickly as she enthralled us all in her unique, half-demented style.
The cold air hit us hard as we stepped off the toasty coach and spread out to find our viewing spots. Surrounded by mountains, ice and snow, it already felt an exciting place to be and our breath fogged the air as we looked up to the skies in anticipation. Helga walked around reassuring us that we had the perfect, clear evening, and we’d see something very soon. Cameras poised in our gloved hands we waited...and waited...and waited. My neck started to ache from craning up at the black, perfectly normal Icelandic sky. After 2 hours marching on the spot to keep warm, neck circles and the occasional heat up on the bus, even Helga gave up. Hugely disappointed we started the journey back to the hotel, Helga’s tales not quite so captivating due to our disappointment. To be fair, the tour company did offer another trip for free since we hadn’t seen the famed aurora borealis, but we would not have time during our short stay.
Our next adventure took place the following day as we headed out on our whale watching boat trip. My husband and I were in fits of laughter as we dressed in the waterproof suits we were asked to wear. Already prepared for the cold, by the time we put the suits over our layers, we looked like michelin men although looking back, just as well we were so protected against the cold. Perhaps you’ve been on a nice relaxing boat ride on holiday, enjoyed a meal on the sea, or a glass bottomed boat to view the sealife below. I can assure you that those tranquil experiences were the opposite of our experience that day. The boat climbed the energetic waves and roller-coastered back down, wind and ocean spray slapping our faces at regular intervals, holding on to our phones for dear life as we white knuckle gripped the railings. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time, and I am thankful that neither my husband or I suffer from sea sickness. Over a loud microphone the tour guide explained the many types of whales found in Iceland including Humpabcks, Orcas, Blue whales and most commonly Minke whales. I was interested to learn that the whalemeat rumours were true and ironically at times the whale watching boats are often docked not far from the whaling boats. Tourists are the main consumers of whalemeat, often misled into thinking it’s a local delicacy, when in fact only around 2% of Icelanders regularly eat whalemeat. There was a plea not to be fooled into trying whalemeat, but the guide need not have worried about us, there was never any intention to sample it. The chances of seeing a whale on a winter tour is around 90%, I’m pleased my husband was in that category. Sadly, having moved to the other side of the boat just as a large minke whale surfaced by my husband, I was in the unlucky 10% and for the remainder of the trip there were no more sightings.
Our last must-do task for the trip was a day at the Blue Lagoon. This luxury outdoor spa with geothermal seawater claims a host of health benefits and we absolutely loved it. The warm blue water contrasting with the chilly outdoors and the snow all around felt truly magical. Swimming to the mask bar, we collected unlimited handfuls of the natural white clay to rub on our skin, certain we’d leave looking 10 years younger. We treated ourselves to the mid range price package and sipped on a glass of wine in the water, later enjoying lunch at Lava restaurant; an eatery built into an 800 year old lava cliff. I was pleased we’d left the Blue Lagoon to the last day as we left feeling utterly relaxed. For me personally, I was relieved that at least one of the experiences in Iceland had lived up to expectations!
To sum up, our trip to Iceland did not go to plan... after all I’d gone to see the Northern Lights, with no Northern Lights, and a Whale watching tour, with no whales. However, would I go again? Absolutely! Iceland has plenty to offer and some of the friendlist people I’ve met. Ironically, whilst we were away, the Aurora Borealis was out in full force in many parts of Scotland.