One of my favourite things about Iceland (apart from the deliciously tasty fish, which I will come to later on) is that in every sense you really are in the hands of mother nature. Yes you can make plans for your break, as we diligently did: Monday, Northern Lights, Tuesday, Whale Watching, Wednesday, Golden Circle, Thursday, Glacier Hiking, Friday, Dog Sledding…but don’t expect to be able to stick to them, because in Iceland – the weather is very much the Boss. You can be frustrated by it, but in my view, it’s better to adopt the manner of the locals and throw your hands in the air and surrender to the elements.
Of course, Icelandic people’s lives don’t revolve around fitting in the country’s touristic highlights in five days. They live in this hostile landscape throughout the year and are prepared for the snow, the ice, the freezing temperatures, the driving rain, the fierce wind and the rate at which the weather changes. It’s formidable how many seasons you can experience in a matter of hours in just one place. Such changeable weather of course, requires practical clothing, and if you arrive unprepared, as I did, I recommend a visit to 66’ North, the outfitters on Bankastraeti. This is Iceland’s heritage brand that’s been ‘keeping Iceland warm since 1926’. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” How often have we all heard that? Well a visit to this store, or one of it’s competitors ZO-ON or Cintamani on the main shopping street, will mean you never have to utter those words again and can be warm, dry and cosy! I speak from experience here. Arriving with a Barbour Jacket in February simply will not suffice! A very warm, very waterproof and windproof coat is a necessity! But when does a girl ever need an excuse to go shopping?!
Now ‘appropriately dressed’ and ready to face the elements, it turned out, Monday night was too cloudy for any chance of seeing the Northern Lights, and this is how it remained for the whole week. Incredibly disappointing, given 2012 is meant to be one of the best years and January to March the best time to see them in all their glory. The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, for those lucky enough to see them, form huge shifting sheets of green and red in winter skies. They’re caused by the solar wind bringing electrically charged particles into the earth’s atmosphere, and require a pitch dark clear sky, void of all artificial light and cloud cover to see them.
On Tuesday, the sea was too rough for whale watching, as it was for every other day we had available for the tour. Whale watching is of course very different to whaling. Many restaurants serve Minke whale on their menus to tempt the tourists in, but this is rarely eaten by Icelandic people. On ethical grounds, I refused to try it and reading this publication by the Elding whale watching tour operators, may sway your decision too.
Glacier Hiking was another activity on our wish-list that wasn’t meant to be, as once again conditions just wouldn’t permit. But there is plenty still to do and see whatever the weather, and one highlight you can enjoy that is not dependent on the elements is a drive through the National Park around the Golden Circle Route, where you can visit Geyser, the Gullfoss and Fontana, one of Iceland’s glorious geothermal spas, but more about that shortly.
You can sign up for tours for everything or hire your own car as we did and freestyle it. Unfortunately Budget and Alvis don’t have an option to rent one of the super trucks that are commonplace here, but on the whole you don’t need them. The main roads are cleared and most areas of interest can be accessed via these, and so there is not much need to travel on the gravel roads where these trucks are a necessity. And they are monstrously big, making our red polo look like a toy car!
Geyser is the first stop on the Golden Circle route. Here you can visit the country’s most famous geysir that reliably erupts every 4-8minutes. It’s an impressive sight, but be warned, there is a very strong smell of sulphur, which is very reminiscent of rotting eggs!
Shortly after is Gullfoss, or the Golden Falls. These waterfalls are one of Iceland’s natural wonders that have been around since the Ice Age. Glacial flood waters carved out the channel thousands of years ago, forcing their way through layers of Basalt Lava. The result is two waterfalls. The upper tier measures 11m in height and the lower tier 20m, dropping into a gorge 70m deep. They are stunning and the walkways and platforms that have been built around them provide popular spots for photographers, hoping to capture the rainbows that appear as the sun shines down on the falls.
Volcanoes, glaciers, geysers and waterfalls are not everything that Iceland has to offer. For almost a century, locals have been enjoying the soothing and relaxing natural steam baths at Laugvertn next to the lake of the same name. More recently, the new thermal baths of Fontana have been built over the original site. Here lies Iceland’s fountain of wellness and the perfect way to end a busy day of sight-seeing. Fontana is composed of a series of geothermal baths and steam rooms that complement each other to create a healthy, natural and unique outdoor spa experience, with a stunning backdrop of snowcapped mountains.
On the subject of natural spas, which Iceland really does do best, you simply cannot leave without visiting the Blue Lagoon. I’m not talking about the crystal clear aquamarine bay in Jamaica that washes onto a white sand beach however. In Iceland, rocky lava fields surround the man made steamy, milky waters of the lagoon. But don’t be put off by the lack of clarity. Bathing in the mineral rich geothermal seawater made of 70%seawater and 30%freshwater, naturally heated to 100’F is simply otherworldly. I guarantee you will leave feeling cleansed and revitalized. Not only is the experience incredibly relaxing, situated in the middle of volcanic lava fields, that provide a fabulous scenic backdrop, letting your mind unwind and reconnect with nature, the water in the lagoon is also rich in silica which has an important role in treating skin conditions, with its exfoliating and deep-cleansing properties. It’ll remove impurities, smoothe and tighten your complexion and is great for anti-ageing too! Surrounding the edges, are buckets filled with it, gathered from the lagoon floor (which can feel unnerving at first as it squelches between your toes in places!). But your skin will simply adore the thick white silica as you join the other bathers and cake a thick layer on your face. This is the ultimate mud masque! The following days, my skin glowed and miraculously was completely blemish free. The silica does wonders! The good news is you can buy some to take home and when you run out, they ship all online orders worldwide. It’s not without reason, the Blue Lagoon’s been voted the best medical spa worldwide by Conde Naste Traveller! There really is nothing better than whiling away an afternoon, soaking in the lagoon, comforted by the knowledge you are nourishing your body’s largest organ, your skin!
Iceland’s natural source of geothermal energy and the fantastic seafood courtesy of her clean coastal waters, are where mother nature gives back. Reykjavik’s restaurants offer the finest fish I have tasted in all my travels around the world and it’s not all about dried fish and herring roll ups either! Considering it’s small size, and the fact it feels more like a provincial town than a capital city, there is an excellent choice of gourmet restaurants available in Reykjavik. The Fish Market reigned supreme in my opinion. Situated on one of the city’s oldest streets, the food is fresh and first class, the service is friendly but attentive and the atmosphere is warm and relaxed. The chef and co-owner has been named the Icelandic ‘Jamie Oliver’. Hrefna Rosa Saetran is part of the Icelandic national chef team and runs her own TV cooking programme. The Fish Market’s menu mixes Icelandic and Asian cuisine, combining the freshest produce from the waters of Iceland infused with exotic spices. The result is in no uncertain terms delicious. The langoustines came in a garlic, champagne and coconut sauce, with grilled pineapple. The combination was a treat for the taste buds and the portions very generous. Ten langoustines arrived which were each the size of mini lobsters – big, sweet, juicy and perfectly cooked. The tuna steak with caramelized onions again was superb. Most of the fish is prepared on a Japanese robata grill which does leave a distinctive taste on the fish, but doesn’t compromise the flavor. The rock shrimp in tempura batter was also incredible. The shellfish is so tender and juicy, it just melts in your mouth and is bursting with flavor. Simply worlds apart from what you can get in the UK. The fusion of flavours and textures on the plate provides a unique dining experience. The Fish Market advertises an influence of Asian flavours which is apparent in the dishes but doesn’t overwhelm them and the chef still maintains an extraordinary originality, particularly in the sauces which accompany the grilled fish exquisitely, enhancing the natural flavours for a taste sensation. Dessert does not go unnoticed here either. The lemon cheesecake and fresh fruit crème brulee are exquisite.
The Fish Company was another fabulous dining experience. It doesn’t boast any particular international influence, and the dishes were more in keeping with modern Icelandic cuisine. The tasting menu ‘Around Iceland’ is a great way to explore these local flavours. The lamb is homegrown, but I think it’s in preparing delicious fish, where Icelandic chefs excel and the meat does not compare. In keeping with the climate here, tiny balls of frozen infused flavours such as frozen cauliflower cous cous find their way onto the plate, giving the palate a surprising but refreshing experience. It’s unusual but works.
If a formal sit down meal doesn’t appeal, there are plenty of cheap eats around as well. No trip to the city is complete without a visit to The Sea Baron, situated in one of the huts along the harbour front. Go for a taste of the world famous lobster soup. It’s exquisite; juicy, creamy, spicy. Just delectable! The menu is wonderful – the freshest fish displayed raw on platters ready for the grill. Simply pick what tickles your fancy. We opted for smoked halibut, which came with boiled new potatoes. It was mouth wateringly delicious, and lovingly served by the old proprieter himself.
Sitting on old lobster pots and eating from narrow benches are all part of the charm of the Sea Baron. Photos of generations of lobster fishermen fill the walls and old sou’wester hats and fishing nets hang from the ceiling. Above all, the food will leave you smiling from ear to ear and your stomach satiated. Because only the simplest and freshest ingredients are used, there is no room for that after dinner ‘stuffed duck’ of bloated feeling. This food energises the body, mind and soul and made my stomach sing!
Aside from filling my stomach with fabulous fresh fish and my lungs with wonderfully clean air and enjoying some energizing walks in the Pingvellir and Snaefellsnes National Parks, the final highlight of the trip was the chance to go Husky Dog Sledding. This is a truly magical and exhilarating experience. Meeting the dogs, which are incredibly friendly and love attention, was wonderful, but learning how to drive the sleds and ‘mush’ was unforgettable. Our guide was so knowledgable and interesting as well, sharing so much information about the history of the Greenland huskies and the life of the working dogs. It’s an experience I will treasure forever and would recommend to all!
My Top Ten Things to do in Iceland:
1) Blue Lagoon geothermal spa
2) Fontana geothermal spa
3) Dinner at the Fish Market
4) Lobster soup at the Sea Baron
5) Golden Circle – to see Geysir and Gullfoss
6) Husky Dog Sledding
7) A walk through the Pingvellir and Snaefellsnes National parks
8) Whale Watching (weather permitting)
9) Glacier hiking (weather permitting)
10) Aurora Borealis (season and weather permitting)