Iceland Excursion: A journey 15 years in the making
In 2002-2004, I was your typical Mosher teenager. Black oversized jeans, chains, Sum 41, and black everything else. My mother was somewhat dismayed at my choice of bedroom colour (black of course), but otherwise supportive because she’s groovy like that. Part of that culture came with a list of necessities, one of which was a fandom of CKY. A group of rag-tag skaters who made videos about skating, stunts, and pranks (often gruesome, but intriguing). Some of the members, notably Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, and Chris Rabb went on to join the MTV hit show Jackass.
‘What the hell does that have to do with Iceland?’ you’re probably thinking. Well, in 2000, CKY released their second film CKY2k, which featured their trip to Iceland. This was before Iceland became such a massive tourist destination. Tourism in the country only massively grew following the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull; which closed airspace over the whole of Northern Europe giving the island a strong brand recognition. Back in 2000, Iceland was on another planet. Expensive, beautiful, and alluringly mysterious. But what CKY2K cemented was just how amazing Iceland was: Huge waterfalls, vast stunning landscapes sans any evidence of humanity, and … freedom. I found the idea intoxifying at the time, and it never really left.
So, when given the chance, it didn’t take long to convince my better half that Iceland was the place to go. After-all, she knits, and Iceland is famous for its wool. Thanks to the tourism trade Iceland is more accessible than ever, and a little of me was happy to fulfil a teenage dream. I’m still waiting on getting a Nissan Skyline R34GTR, but I’m not planning on replacing the Saab just yet. Price wise, it wasn’t the cheapest holiday. Many people would often be able to stay 14 nights in Spain for the price we paid for 5… but then you wouldn’t be able to say you’ve gone to experience Iceland. And there’s no better way of explaining Iceland other than it’s an experience.
So we booked online, loaded up my camera gear, and off we went. Keeping costs low we opted to go end of the holiday season in September. But in some ways, it’s the best time to go, Reykjavík is a little quieter at this time of year, and you drastically increase your chance of seeing the northern lights.
Getting to Iceland is relatively easy. Iceland Air fly daily from Manchester to Iceland’s main airport Keflavík. Upon landing the first thing you’ll notice is the smell: Rotten eggs. The first reminder that Iceland still isn’t quite finished being built, and volcanic activity (and sulphur) is still very present. From there you can either get a taxi or coach to Iceland’s capital Reykjavík which is about 50km (31miles). Alternatively, if you’re feeling confident, you can do what we did, which was to get a hire car from the airport and drive to your hotel.
Keeping costs low, we got ourselves a little Volkswagen UP. Which I nicknamed the little shit, on account for its small size, tardy acceleration, and general unenjoyableness. Driving on the wrong side of the road was a new experience, for me at least. On first gear change attempt I nearly opened the door. Other than that, I had few other problems acclimatising to driving in Iceland. A few things you will have to get used to are gravel roads, remembering to keep your headlights on all the time, and if you opted for a smaller car like we did, getting used to every other car being a lifted 4×4 and about five times the size as yours. You’ll look out of the side window, only to be met with a view of someone’s lug nuts at eye level.
We stayed at a guesthouse that in its previous incarnations was the Maltese consulate and former home of the Icelandic artist Guðmundur Thorsteinsson-Muggur. The place so quaint it was impossible not to fall in love. The average room prices from around £180-200 per night. This includes the city tax and vat. We managed to find an amazing deal and get it substantially cheaper, so it’s worth shopping around. Did I mention there’s a hotel dog? I should have led with that.
The rest of the first day we took it easy and took in the sights of the city. The atmosphere of Reykjavík could be described as placid, slow, and colourful, especially to a Mancunian. Crime is pretty much non-existent, everyone is relaxed, the street lights have smiling faces on them, and most of the buildings are painted in what can only be described as joy. While I have heard that some locals are somewhat abrasive to tourists this wasn’t something I ever encountered. Most locals are more interested in where you came from, and more than willing to give suggestions of the best locations to visit – including the geothermal spas that they use. Outside bathing is a bit of a national culture. After a bit of photography and some food we headed back to the apartment. Getting ready for the next day ahead I jumped in to the shower – only to discover yet another of Iceland’s quirks: geothermally heated water smells of sulphur. Don’t worry, you get used to showering in rotten egg smell.
The Blue Lagoon
Day two started off with a trip to the Blue Lagoon. Now if you’ve ever spoken to anybody who has visited Iceland, chances are that they’ve gone here. It’s a geothermally heated spa with steaming milky white blue water that runs anywhere between 37-40 °C. It’s fairly accessible, being only 45 minutes (by car) away from Reykjavík and even closer to the airport. Now as a prime destination for tourists, it isn’t cheap, but the price includes access to the Lagoon, saunas, a silica & algae face mask and an alcoholic drink from the bar.
Turning up and getting into the lagoon is relatively painless. When you arrive, you’ll be given a wristband that that’s also your locker-key and payment device for the bar. You’re given towels (and a dressing gown if you paid for the upgrade) and sent off to the locker rooms where you’re expected to shower beforehand. If you have longer hair it’s recommended you pre-apply some conditioner as the Silca in the water isn’t the best thing it. After then you get to jump in! We spent about four hours in the pool.
Bridge Between Continents
After the Blue Lagoon me and Jess took the car out to explore more of the Reykjanes Peninsula. We took the scenic route towards the Bridge Between Continents. The Reykjanes can be translated as Smokey Point, which seems fitting for a location filled with lava fields and hot springs. It’s a location where geography nerds go wild, particularly at the area surrounding the bridge between continents. It’s a visual evidence of the Mid Atlantic Ridge – with a valley that has the North American plate to the west and the Eurasian plate to the east. Each side slowly drifting apart from each other at about 2cm per year.
There’s not many places you can walk between two continents. But if it’s too eerie for you, there’s also a 15m bridge. The area isn’t much of a tourist trap: there’s no shops and only a small carpark. But it’s certainly a location you’ll want to visit just to see the area alone.
Heading back to the city, we had a few hours to kill and decided to visit the Church of Hallgrímskirkja. Every city has it’s focal point, and this is certainly Reykjavík’s. Outside the church is a permanent presence of photographers all getting that one shot of the church you see on /r/evilbuildings. The architecture is certainly unique and worth a visit in its own right, but the real gem is the view from the top. The entrance fee was fairly minimal which gets you entrance to the top of the observation tower. From here you can see the whole of Reykjavík. The candy-coloured roof tops. The bay, and all the ships going towards the harbour. The view even stretched to the surrounding mountains. I was lucky enough to see a rainbow from the top. Pretty rad, pretty rad.
The Sun Voyager
Walking down the hill from the Hallgrímskirkja towards the sea you’ll find a sculpture called The Sun Voyager (or Sólfar in Icelandic). It was completed by the artist Jón Gunnar Árnason in 1989. It’s supposed to recall Iceland’s Viking history and the foundation of the country. Which you’ll learn more about when I finally finish the first video of my Political YouTube series. Facing out towards the sea this piece of art conjures feelings of adventure and hope associated with the promise of an undiscovered territory. Along with it comes the view of the bay that shouldn’t be missed.
I made a promise to Jess that if we could we would go out of our way to see the Northern Lights. And on our second night we got lucky. An app on our phone buzzed giving us a warning that there was the potential for it to be visible. So we quickly packed the car and drove out of the city.
While they say you can never guarantee to see the Northern Lights, if you go at the right time of year you’ll have a good chance of seeing them. The Northern Lights, also called the Aurea Borealis, is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world, and it just so happens to be one of the most amazing sights you’ll ever see. Imagine looking up to a dark sky and seeing flecks, sparkles, or strips of colour dancing in the sky. It really is nothing you’ve seen before. Plenty of companies will offer to drive you out or take you out to see to visit it, having your own car turns out to be the cheaper option when you look at their prices however! Driving out towards the darkness we found a local harbour near a place called Smábátahöfn Seltjarnarness. It’s not on any official tourist guides, but the harbour walls were the perfect backdrop to see the lights from. Although we did get some funny looks from people entering and exiting the harbour workshop. We stayed from sunset till about 1am in the morning watching the lights. Apart from the occasional cloud, it was a full night light party.
One thing to be aware of is that the Aurea never looks as vivid as it does in photographs. DSLR’s are far better at capturing an enhancing colour, especially with photo editing, than the human eye. It’s a good idea to find an online guide of how to properly spot them and to set your expectations accordingly.
Day three was a bit more packed than all the others. We’d planned to visit the three major attractions on what’s called The golden circle. It’s a loop that covers some 190 miles of the most amazing natural sights which is doable in one day – although in hindsight I’d recommend at least a few days if you have time.
Stop one: Þingvellir (Thingvellir)
The first stop we took was Thingvellir national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has some amazing views towards the lake (Þingvallavatn) which is the largest natural lake in Iceland. There’s also the Silfra Fissure. A crack between the continental plates, and the only place in the world where you can dive between them. For political nerds, Þingvellir gets it’s name from the Alþingi (the world’s first parliament – I really need to finish that YouTube video on this…). The name is made of two words þing (“thing, assembly”) and vǫllr (“field”) – a fitting name for a park that hosted the yearly national parliament from 930 to 1798.
Step two: Gullfoss Waterfall
Gullfoss waterfall is an amazingly dramatic scene, and its Iceland’s answer to the Niagara, Victoria or Iguazu falls. It’s a 32-metre double waterfall. The location has a small visitor centre and a somewhat harrowingly small path that takes you right beside the falls for a real close-up view. Good luck taking any good close-up photos, the water spray will get into everything, including your camera lens.
For you political nerds, the site was planned to be turned into a massive hydro-electric plant in the 1900’s but Iceland’s first political activist and daughter of the waterfall’s owner, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, soon put a stop to that.
Step three: Haukadalur Valley & the Geysers.
Haukadalur is geothermal hot-bed and home to two of the world’s most famous geysers. The first being the non-active Geysir, where the term geyser originates. The second being the more active and regularly erupting Stokkur. The site also has around a further 30 hot-springs and little geysers in the general area.
For the uninitiated, a geyser is a spring which erupts due to the build-up of steam heated geothermally. Magma close to the Earth’s crust heats up the spring water, causing it to go kaboom. The Stokkur geyser tended to erupt every 6 minutes while we were there, shooting scolding hot water up 20 to 30 metres into the sky. Sadly, the actual Great Geysir hasn’t erupted regularly since the 1950’s, although it does sometimes pop very rarely, when it does, it can reach up to 120-metres into the air!
I would certainly visit this area again. Although despite no-drone signs everywhere there’s always 5 or so people flying theirs around, which was slightly irritating.
The City (again)
After we headed back into Reykjavík we went to a small restraint called Svarta Kaffid. It’s a unique place known for serving soup in a bowl made from a huge cob of bread hollowed out. It was a cosy little restaurant with dimmed lights, candle-lit tables for no more than 30 people, and an excellent selection of ales. There was a small queue that ran down the small set of steps and outside. We got in early and only had to wait 10 minutes or so. When we left the queue was certainly longer than that. The general goodness and fairly cheap prices make this a popular location with the locals and tourists alike.
On the forth day me and Jess went a bit further away from the city. Heading towards Seljalandsfoss, a popular waterfall and scenic spot on southern cost of Iceland. It was about a two-hour drive away from Reykjavík. The drive was worth it in itself as we got to see a bit more off the beaten track. The waterfall is fed by the volcano glacier of Eyjafjallajökull. The 60 metre waterfall can be explored from all angles. There is even a path that allows you to walk behind the waterfall itself! Although the path had some particularly challenging bits, so take suitable footwear. It’s a famous location for a number of music videos including those by Bjork and *eugh* Justin Beiber. But I can’t blame them, this waterfall is breathtakingly beautiful.
The site also has a smaller waterfall, Gljúfrabúi, if you can call a 40 metre waterfall small. It’s located in a small gorge and it’s view is blocked from the outside by a large rock (called Franskanef cliff). The view of the waterfall only accessible by a tiny water-logged passage, a path not for the faint of heart. I managed to work my way around and through the path, Jess and the majority of other visitors wisely stayed back. I’d argue wading through the water is totally worth it, once you’re in the gorge it’s like you’re in a separate little world.
A short drive away down the road is the volcano of Eyjafjallajökull. You know, the famous one that knocked out air travel for most of Europe? The one who had news anchors across the globe spill out gibberish trying to pronounce? That one. It has its own visitor centre that we didn’t bother with (it was really expensive and didn’t offer much). Below the volcano is a small farm, which during the eruption slid down the mountain quite a distance. There are plenty of viewing car parks along the ring road that you can view the volcano and glacier from, so if you’re in the area it’s worth a quick gander.
Last night in the City, and Life Changing Hotdog
After driving the two-and-a-bit hours home, we decided to spend our last night in the city again. Normally when you’re on holiday people make an effort to eat fancy, but on this particular night we couldn’t escape trying a traditional Icelandic Hotdog. Travelling around you’ll notice that Icelanders love Hotdogs, the most famous of which being Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (website)a small chain of hotdog stands that date back to 1937. It’s main stand by the Harbour is by far the most well-known and has a long list of famous visitors including former US president Bill Clinton. These are some seriously life changing hotdogs and is even said to be one of five of the best European food stalls. They’re pretty cheap at about £3 per dog and come served with ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish.
Sadly, on our last day we was traveling back so didn’t have too much time. But we did have a very important stop today. Álafoss, is a wool factory dating back from 1896 after a local farmer imported machine to process wool by harnessing the power of the local waterfall. It’s one of the more famous wool shops in Iceland (of which there are many). I have it on very good authority that if you knit this is a must see. They sold everything wool. Wool rugs, wool jumpers, wool bags, wool hats, wool gloves, wool socks… I can go on. But Jess was there for the yarn, which we now have a sufficient supply of.
Worst bit of the journey tbh. Dropped off the rental car, we luckily had no problems there, and flew back home. Sucks.
To Conclude & Travel Tips
Iceland is as beautiful as people tell you it is. I haven’t met anyone who has gone to Iceland that hasn’t also suggested that their friends and family also go. Granted, you’re not going to get the beach holiday you’ll find in Spain, but you’ll certainly find Spain completely boring after visiting here. I don’t think it’s fair to even attempt to encapsulate Iceland in a single blog post. There’s just too many little oddities or bits to explore. Like the random curves in the road to avoid large rocks, because some Icelanders believe fairies live in them; or the Christmas cats you’ll see in stops born from folklore of a cat that eats children who do not get new cloths at Christmas. There is just so much to take in, and I honestly think it’s a land worthy of a two-week holiday – 5 days was certainly too short.
One thing worth mentioning was the weather. It changes. A lot. In 12 minutes we saw it go from rain to sun, back to rain with sudden gusts, then a bit of hail, followed by sun. It’s in a state of continuous change that would surprise even the most hardy of Mancunians. Bring a coat. Leave the umbrella at home, it’ll only get blown inside out.
Unquestionably it’s better to hire a car and explore on your own. Public transport isn’t really a thing outside the main cities & towns, and private guides are expensive. Just make sure to initiate yourself the rules while driving because they’re pretty extreme with the fines. Drink driving is a big no-no, you always have to drive with your headlights on (to account for the ever changing weather), do not even attempt to drive off road unless you have a 4×4, and even then stick to the roads as driving on the protected moss (that’s easily damaged) comes again with large fines and a pretty heavy social stigma. Also, be careful on the gravel roads.
But most importantly remember Iceland has a lot of sheep. Sheep are dumb as shit. They have death wishes. They will decide to jump in front of your car for no reason.
Consider going towards the start or end of the season. Iceland gets pretty busy, especially with American’s taking up Iceland Air’s free stop off offer while traveling from Europe. So hotels can get expensive. Going in peak will be costly! Even still, pre-book some locations ahead of time. Guest tours are often cheaper in advance and places like the Blue Lagoon book up quickly. Talking of cost, alcohol is redonkulously expensive.
Don’t bother buying bottles water. The tap water in Iceland is literally spring water filtered through volcanic rock, it’s amazing. Most locals buy a bottle of water for the bottle itself which they use to refill when possible. Another cool water fact, the hot water in Reykjavík is heated 27 miles away in a geothermal power plant. It’s heated to 85 °C and only loses about 2°C across the whole journey! The same water is also used to heat the sidewalks and roads in winter to avoid ice. All this practically-free heating comes with an already mentioned side-effect. All the hot water also smells a bit of sulphur which is picked up while being heated. This also means you can’t drink the hot water. To be honest, it’s not all that bad, and you get used to it!
While Iceland isn’t in the EU, it is part of the EEA, which means UK citizens with a valid passport don’t need a visa. So don’t worry about that.
Finally, Iceland is a photographer’s dream. There’s so many picturesque sites that it’s a shame if you don’t bring a camera. So make sure to take one with you. If you do opt to also take a drone, don’t be a dick with it.
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