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2015: A Winter Trip to Iceland

Northern Lights

 

We always like to try and find somewhere interesting to visit for Debbie's birthday, and this year was no exception as we went to Iceland for 4 days. We found a package that included 3 nights in Reykjavik, coach trips to see the Northern Lights the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle, together with an afternoon's whale watching on a small ship. So, with our warmest clothes packed in our suitcase, we jetted Northwards from Luton Airport.

Within half an hour of our arrival at Keflavik Airport the weather had changed from bright calm sunshine to hailstones and a snowstorm with gale force winds, and then back to calm sunshine, confirming the Icelandic saying that if you don't like the weather you just have to wait a few minutes and it will be completely different..

 

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Debbie looks into an example of street sculpture
An amazing sculpture of a Viking longboat
Even the fire hydrants were impressive enough to be sculptures
The scenery across the harbour was fantastic
Some of the restaurant menus were not to our taste !!!

We spent the afternoon walking around Reykjavik, admiring the varied architecture and the many wonderful open-air sculptures. We also visited the incredible Hallgrimskirkja Church whose tower apparently gives a fabulous view of the city - but it had started snowing again so instead of taking the lift up the tower we merely spent a half hour enjoying the incredibly impressive space inside the church which was simple, elegant and exciting but was at the same time incredibly peaceful.

 

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Built on the top of a hill in the centre of the city, the spectacular Hallgrimskirkja Church is clearly visible from anywhere in Reykjavik
The interior of the church is an absolutely amazing space, tall and open with a beautiful set of organ pipes filling one end wall

Returning to the hotel we were disappointed to discover that the restaurant was closed on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and that  the two nearby restaurants would not be open in time for us to eat before our booked Northern Lights trip that evening. We walked back to the nearby shopping street and found the "Old Icelandic Restaurant" where we had the most fabulous meal before returning to our hotel to be collected by our coach for the evening. Again, as when we were in Montreal, Gray Line Tours had everything very well organised including collecting their passengers from the hotels before the tour and returning them there afterwards. It was to be a busy evening for them as the weather had been so poor that the tours had not been run for more than a week. If you do not see the Northern Lights on your trip, or if the trip is cancelled, your tickets are valid for a further two years; so with many re-booked passengers they actually took over 1000 people out of the city that night in a fleet of coaches. Sadly the Northern Lights were very dim that night so that the human eye could barely detect any brightening of the sky, but by using a long exposure I was just able to get a few photos such as the one at the top of this page (technical note, for this shot I used a 12 seconds exposure at f/2.8 with an ISO speed of 1600 ASA. Longer exposures gave a slightly brighter image but were more prone to being spoiled by people walking in front of the tripod or even by them using their camera's flash!).

We were eventually taken back to the hotel after 1am, and were extremely glad to fall into bed after a long day which had started at 4.30am when we got up to catch our morning plane. The next day we were scheduled to spend the afternoon whale-watching, so we had a lazy morning of sight-seeing and shopping before the coach took us to the harbour. Unfortunately our ship was not at the harbour, having re-located to Keflavik (near the airport) to have a better chance of finding the whales, so another coach then took us there instead. The afternoon on the ship was very enjoyable - luckily we don't mind rough seas - but after three hours we hadn't seen any whales so the ship returned to Keflavik.

The whale-watching tickets included vouchers for 15% discount at the "Mar" restaurant on the harbour-side, and we returned there for an absolutely amazing fish dinner that night. If you like freshly caught local sea-food, I cannot recommend it highly enough!

 

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Whaling vessels moored at Reykjavik harbour
Looking across the lava field at Thingvellir National Park
A minibus at Gullfoss, fully equipped to cope with the snow.
The waterfall at Gullfoss (the Golden Falls)

Thoroughly refreshed, we were ready for an early start the next morning. The coach collected us from the hotel again, and our first destination was the Blue Lagoon. This is a large geothermal spa pool, heated to about 38 degrees (see photo at the foot of this page). Although the air temperature was about minus 6, we were happy and warm in the hot steaming water, especially as the entrance ticket included one drink at their swim-up bar! We found some of the Icelandic conventions a little strange - such as their insistence that you must shower BEFORE putting on your swimwear - but there was nothing to detract from the amazing experience of swimming in such a beautiful and  atmospheric situation.

After a morning in the pool the coach took us back to Reykjavik and then started out on the afternoon's "Golden Circle" tour. The weather was perfect for the spectacular scenery - cold but exceptionally clear - although photography proved to be rather difficult. Firstly it was extremely cold; the air temperature was minus 13 and the wind occasionally reached about 40 mph so the wind-chill-corrected temperature was about minus 40 which really made it difficult to think clearly. Apart from the difficulty of standing still in the wind on the slippery ground, it was almost impossible to feel the buttons on the camera to press them.  Secondly, partly die to the weather and partly due to the gases being emitted from an erupting volcano on the other side of the island, the ambient light had acquired a strong blue tint that was proving very difficult for the camera to counteract.

The first destination of the afternoon was Thingvellir National Park. As well as being historically important as the meeting point of the original Icelandic Vikings Parliament, the site is of great geological significance as it is where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, separated only by a broad lava field. We stood briefly at the edge of the American plate, enjoying the view across the lava field to the Eurasian plate a mile or so away (and moving further by about one inch per year) before hurrying back to the warmth of the coach which took us up to the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall. Here the weather was particularly cold and I was extremely glad to return to the cafe at the visitor's centre where they sold the most delicious bowls of traditional Icelandic lamb stew.

Finally we were taken to the site of the original "Geysir" after which all geysers are named. We were warned not to touch the pretty little streams of water which ran through the snow beside the paths, as the water in them would be almost at boiling point, and the valves which released steam like the lid of a pressure-cooker certainly confirmed that  there were high temperatures under the ground.

 

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This "Little Geyser" is really just a boiling puddle
It is not a good idea to step off the path or touch the hot streams!
Steam billows constantly from these valves

The original geyser now erupts relatively infrequently, but nearby there is the geyser of Strokkur which erupts to a height of about 60ft every few minutes. I was very pleased to capture a sequence of pictures at my first attempt, as the eruption could be any time from 4 minutes until 8 minutes or more after the previous one, and there is no warning of its arrival, but you must react very quickly to catch its first moments.

 

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Strokkur erupts every few minutes. These pictures were taken at half-second intervals

Finally we were driven back across the mountains, in a fierce snowstorm, to our hotel. We returned to the Old Icelandic restaurant for a fabulous dinner, ready for our flight home the next morning. We had seen a lot in a very short time (although no bright Northern Lights, and no whales, and no snow while we were swimming in the Blue Lagoon which apparently creates a magical atmosphere) but we had seen some spectacular scenery both natural and sculpted, and we had thoroughly enjoyed our brief visit to the Land of Fire and Ice. I suspect that we will return there for a longer visit fairly soon.

 

 

Erie Canal entrance

Swimmers enjoy the steaming hot waters of the Blue Lagoon

 

 

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