On our way back from New York, Alex and I stopped off in Iceland. We had got some really cheap flights with Wow Air, and part of the deal is that you transfer in Iceland.
It was Alex’s first time in Iceland, although I had already visited three years previously. You can read all about it.
But I was delighted to return to Iceland, because I enjoyed it so much before and there was so much I didn’t get the chance to see first time round.
Our flight departed from Newark airport at 6.30pm New York time, and landed at Keflavik airport at 4.30am in Iceland. It was perhaps too optimistic to expect to be able to sleep on the flight. Alex slept for a bit. I got absolutely nothing.
When we arrived in Reykjavik it was almost 6am. When we were planning, I thought we could just drop our bags off, get some breakfast in a cafe and start our Reykjavik adventure.
In reality, we were far too tired to get going. Besides, it was still dark and nowhere was open yet.
Luckily there was a 24 hour receptionist where we were staying. We asked if we could get our room early to grab a few hours of shut-eye. Our room wasn’t ready. They only had one room that was available — their most expensive one.
We were given it for half price. Even so, it was the most expensive nap we’ve ever had.
At 12 noon we were woken up to check out of the room, and check in to our actual room.
We had only three days in Iceland, so we had no time to hang around.
Whistle-stop tour of Reykjavik
Our first day was to be spent wandering around the centre of Reykjavik. I showed Alex some of my favourite parts of the city.
We had brunch in a wonderful bakery called Sandholt.
Just a stone’s throw away from our accommodation was Sun Voyager, the magnificent Viking ship sculpture that faces the sea.
We then visited the magnificent Harpa concert hall.
Being an architect, Alex was able to give me a new perspective on how awesome this building is.
Last time I wandered inside but mainly admired it from the outside.
Alex and I explored the building much more thoroughly this time. It is a delightful building to explore. Everywhere you go provides another new perspective on the building.
Afterwards, we charged up the hill to see the monumental church, Hallgrímskirkja. Unfortunately, it was looking a bit worse for wear. It seems to have concrete cancer.
A great shame, as it looked so majestic when I visited it before.
We then drank in the fantastic Mikkeller & Friends bar before eating in the pizza restaurant downstairs from it.
Golden circle tour
The second day was for stuff I didn’t get to do before. The golden circle features some of Iceland’s most famous tourist attractions. Circumstances meant I couldn’t see them last time round.
The first stop was Þingvellir National Park.
Here lies the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. This creates some dramatic scenery, which my photographs do no justice to.
It is also the historical site of Iceland’s parliament, the oldest in the world, established in AD930.
Then it was on to the even more spectacular Gullfoss, a huge waterfall that plunges into a deep crevice.
It is without doubt one of the most extraordinary natural features I have seen. Once again, photos simply do not do it justice.
Next up was Geysir. Geysir itself is mostly dormant, and it certainly didn’t erupt while we were there — although we were able to peer in.
But nearby Strokkur erupts very regularly, once every few minutes.
The eruptions are spectacular.
The natural smell of sulphur meant I was getting away with a lot more than usual.
In the gift shop I was tempted to buy some canned Icelandic air, but I thought better of it.
On the way back, we visited Faxi. It is not formally part of the golden circle, because Faxi was superseded in the 1990s by interneti. But it is nonetheless a spectacular sight.
After visiting Faxi, there was not much more to see for the rest of the long journey back. Following an exciting comfort break at the supermarket in Hveragerði, most of the talk on the coach was about the prospect of seeing northern lights. Many fellow passengers were booked onto a tour for that night.
Northern lights tour (aka the no-northern lights tour)
The prospect of seeing the northern lights was in fact slim. The weather forecast was cloudy. Even if the skies were clear, aurora activity was not predicted.
It was likely that our best light show would be from the Harpa building.
However, Alex hadn’t seen the northern lights before, and she didn’t want to regret missing out on this opportunity. So we booked the tickets for the tour.
Later that evening, we set off on the bus, which headed out of the city towards the north. It was, of course, dark. So there was not much to see.
The most interesting part of the journey was the Hvalfjörður undersea tunnel, which reaches a depth of 165 metres.
After another riveting stop at a supermarket-cum-service station, we drove on to our final destination. We arrived at a car park in place called Glanni, adjacent to a golf course.
I thought we would be driven to the middle of nowhere, which I guess we sort of were. Yet there were still quite a lot of lights, which didn’t strike me as ideal aurora viewing conditions.
Of course, it made no difference. On occasion a gap in the clouds appeared, enabling us to see the odd star here and there. Otherwise, we spent the whole time squinting at the horizon trying to decide whether that hazy patch was aurora, or car headlights bouncing off the clouds.
An amateur singing group took it upon themselves to entertain us in lieu of aurora.
We got home at 2am. This trip was doing wonders for my jetlag.
All-in-all, it was a bit of a waste of money and time. Even the aspects that were within the control of the tour operator (such as finding somewhere dark to go within a two hour drive of Reykjavik) didn’t seem as good as the last time I saw the northern lights in Iceland, which was superb.
A final day in Reykjavik
After a short lie-in, we had just a few hours remaining in Reykjavik.
This was the day it struck me just how much busier Iceland was than when I had visited three years previously. Everywhere was chock full of American tourists. It felt like there were more Americans in Reykjavik than Icelandic people.
I didn’t remember there being anything like this many tourists when I last visited. We spoke to a taxi driver who confirmed that tourism had exploded in the past few years. He said it was a double-edged sword. It is obviously good for the economy, but having so many tourists does detract from so much of what makes Iceland special.
Apparently this is all down to a TV show called Game of Thrones, some of which is filmed in Iceland. Alas, during my whole time in Iceland, I didn’t see any dragons or boobs.
The main effort of the day was to see Þúfa. I had no idea what it was, but I had seen it from Harpa the other day. But because it was on the other side of the harbour, it took about 45 minutes to walk there.
The weather was windy and damp, made all the worse by us walking along the freezing cold harbour.
There are some interesting eateries and shops along the way. But the further along the harbour you go, the more industrial it becomes. So I was hoping our little trip wouldn’t be a let down.
Þúfa is a piece of art by Ólöf Nordal.
A small man-made hill, it reminded me of Charles Jenks’s life mounds, but smaller in scale.
When we got there, we climbed to see what the surprise at the top was.
It was a little hut containing dead fish. What does it all mean? I didn’t know. But I did know it took us 45 minutes to get there, and it would take us 45 minutes to get back.
On the plus side, it is another superb vantage point to see Harpa from.
We sadly left Reykjavik, as it was time to go to the Blue Lagoon. I’ve written about this geothermal spa before, but it was Alex’s first time — and I just had to take her there.
The main difference between this visit and my last was the temperature. Last time round I visited in late December, which led to little icicles appearing in my hair. This time it was March, so rather more temperate.
Neither of us were driving, so we took full advantage of the poolside bar. We chilled in the pool drinking fizz until we were fully wrinkled up.
We weren’t going back to Reykjavik because our flight home was early the next morning. So we splashed out on a meal at the Blue Lagoon. It wasn’t the cheapest experience, but it was delightful.
We still want to go back again
We were telling the person who served us at the Blue Lagoon ticket office how much we loved Iceland. She was funny about it — she said she found Iceland boring and didn’t understand why so many people visited.
Reykjavik is the first foreign city I have visited twice. Yet Iceland is still one of the countries I most want to visit again.
We know we have still just scratched the surface of what Iceland has to offer. But next time we will rent a car and explore the rest of the country — perhaps do a full loop of the main road.