Skip to content

icelandic adventures of a long weekend

“Why Iceland?”. It’s the question all Reykjavik locals ask. We’ve always wanted to come and it’s just an intriguing place. Such friendly people, how ever baffled they might be by our desire to explore their home country.

As we flew into the world’s most northerly capital on Thursday I couldn’t help trying to spot whales and dolphins in the North Atlantic. I’m convinced I saw at least one pod of dolphins breaking the water’s surface and, now, as my feet are firmly under the table in a country where most of the population would refuse to say out loud that fairies and trolls (little people) don’t exist, I’m going to let the unlikelihood of my claims rest undisturbed. From what I’ve gleaned, Ingolfur Arnarson was the first settler here in AD871, a Norwegian fugitive who up-ended his ‘high seat pillar’ off the boat and made his home where it came to rest: Smoky Bay…or Reykjavik as we know it now.

I kind of prefer ‘Smoky Bay’. Does what i says on the tin. It smokes and it smells like it smokes. The sulpheric water pouring out from the taps in our room betrays the city’s geothermal tendencies. It’s harnessed a little way from here and gets piped into the city. Super environmentally friendly. Keeps the streets free of snow, ensures a perfect volcanically warmed 29 degrees for your shower and lends a new meaning to ‘hot water on tap’.

The buildings look like they’ve been plucked right out of a toy town: pastel greens, yellows and blues with sharply triangular red and blue roofs, pointing up in defence against the threat of snow-filled skies.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur Hotel Leifur Eiriksson room is on the top (fourth) floor and has a little balcony out the back with a mountainous backdrop to the right. You can make your own waffles for breakfast and the coffee is free 24-7. They know how to keep a merry band of four adventurous girls happy. The best thing of all about this place though, is that as soon as you step out of the front door you’re greeted by one of the most striking churches I’ve ever seen.

Hallgrimskirkja spears up towards the clouds, trying to match the volcanic hills it was inspired by. It has long thin whale bone-like windows stretching down each side and a stunning stain glass window at it’s heart. Inside you might as well be in the belly of a whale. It’s prettiest in the dark though. More like a child’s nightlight than a building with gentle brightness glowing from within it’s delicate crocheted spire and tiny diamond-shaped punctures reaching all the way up to the tip like a little pointed hat (imp’ish head wear which the little people would be likely to indulge in).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn our first night, we ate the best Thai noodle soup I’ve ever had (yes, bizarrely, even better than the helpings I slurped my way through in Thailand). I’m torn between relieved and sightly disappointed that we’ve not sampled any of the country’s Viking-esque traditional foodie offerings: no puffin (apparently its quite like calves liver…but having learnt how clumsy puffins are and therefore feeling like we have a brethren connection, I’m not sure I could bring myself to tuck into one), rotten shark meat (so unpalatable that it has to be stowed away and decomposed a little bit before it can even be contemplated), pickled testicles (until I get paid to go on ‘I’m a Celebrity’ – unlikely – I’ll give that a miss), no singed sheep head or head cheese (I don’t think this requires any elaboration) either. However, we did sample salted cod and deep-fried-cod-cheeks (soft and surprisingly sweet) yesterday at Sjavargrillid and that may just have been one of the best meals I have ever had. Emma had catfish which is white (who knew?) and delicious, Marie chose Golden Pearch with chorizo and generously sized tomato cous cous and Claire – very wisely – had the same as me. The white and pink wines of the months helped things on their way and desert tipped us over the edge into food filled bliss.

We’ve been making (very) lame attempts at pronouncing the names of Icelandic sights. It’s such a melodic language. The nearest you’ll get to old-skool Viking by all accounts. Which makes it uber-cool in my book. They roll their ‘r’s but in a lighter way than in Italy and there’s a sort of after-word inflection which happens at the end of words, leaving one sentence teetering towards the next. Whilst the star of the show was conspicuously absent on our Northern Lights midnight tour, the bus drivers lilt “and errr, and errr, and errrr” soothed away disappointment and lulled me into a sleepy haze.

One bus tour was enough for us and we hired a car for Days 2 and 3. So good to have your own steam (sure Icelanders would agree!). Friday we drove out past Laugarvatn’s hot lake springs on snowy roads marked only with high-vis yellow sticks and made our way through the bleak stony landscape of Pingvellir National Park. The ground at the moment is a messy chess-board of bright white snow, sat unapologetically atop the deep black volcanic ground rock. Cast your eyes to the horizon and milky colours blur earth and sky like the pale melt of paint brushes in water.

The roads here stretch out in singular belts across Iceland’s surface. Then all of a sudden the desolate horizon is spiced up by a rash of russet, chocolate and champagne as Icelandic ponies come into view. Of course you have to stop and say hello. Nothing like a chat with a whispy haired one to break up a journey in search of geysers and waterfalls. As you get within patting distance you notice tiny rain droplets clinging to the forlocks that cascade haphazardly over their perfectly proportioned faces.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of hours down the very same road and steam billows upwards, betraying the location of Geysir and Strokkur: smoking mouths which spew powerful plumes of bluish water out from the earths core and twenty metres into the air, to the eternal delight of spectators dotted around in the mist.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith streams of vapour rising from stripped back ground you could conceivably be marooned on the surface of another world . OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUntil you wonder back towards the car park and help yourself to a hot chocolate in the prudently placed cafe and souvenir shop, that is.

Emma and I were determined to buy round-necked Icelandic jumpers, until we saw the 22,500 krona price tag. We have since worked that 100 krona is equivalent to 50p but at this point were still under the impression that 100 krona was 60p: one mountain our brains couldn’t conquer, even when united in mathmatical effort. So in actual fact kr22,500 is basically £110. For a jumper. A unique jumper, with an unmistakeably Icelandic diamond pattern surrounding a neat round neck.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut still. £110.

We still tried everything on. It turns out Marie looks great in fur-lined hats (and posing with stuffed polar bears), Claire can pull off a fur-effect stoll and Emma has hilarious teeth in a bright red moustache-hat (yes these really exist. Basically a balaclava, with a moustache. Not even a subtle moustache. A knitted self-referential one. Now I think about it, we should have bought one each for Movember).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Eventually we drag ourselves away from this shop of head-wear delights and foray on-wards to Gullfoss. The wind bites through every thermal layer as we teeter down the iced wooden stairs to this savagely beautiful spot. I can’t imagine how a waterfall could be any more impressive. Unless you were to add a dose of sunshine and a rainbow. Which does happen sometimes. There’s photos on the information signs to prove it. As we see it today, the water’s racing in powerful fury down a three tiered ravine, probably dug out by glaciers thousands of years ago.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s white and frothy and noisy on top, but underneath there’s a layer of silent ice, frozen mid-action, like nature’s version of the Trevi fountain.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOk, so there’s no rearing horses here but if you squint a bit you could certainly imagine some. The ‘path closed due to winter conditions’ sign is like a red rag to a bull and we slip-slide our way down the narrow glass-like forbidden path, grabbing onto the side-rope and shuffling towards a natural viewing platform where we’re hit with the full panoramic view. It’s huge and it’s magnificent and we’re all a little bit enchanted.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA nice man offers to take a photo of us jumping like excited giggling children. Marie comments that we’re never going to grow up. And I think she might be right.

“My favourite place so far” we all declare independently as we make our way back up to the car.

The drive home is a long one, winding past the towns of Reykholt, Skalholt and Borg a Myrum (names as atmospheric as the tales they’ve inspired). Marie picks out the more interesting details from my borrowed ‘Lonely Planet’. Borg means rock and got it’s name – quite matter of factly – because there was, and still is, a big rock. It’s the core location of Egil’s Saga, which is a good one: Kveldulfur fled to Iceland in the 9th century after falling out with the King of Norway but became so ill on the journey that he croaked it, but not before telling his son that he should throw his coffin off the boat with him in it. Wherever it washed ashore Skallagrimur Kvedulfsson was duty-bound to build his new home. So he did. But he wasn’t the most pleasant sort, having killed his first enemy at the age of 7 (blood thirsty escapades and raids on England to follow). It was all recorded thanks to Snorri Sturlusson, who married into the family. Snorri wrote down many of the Saga’s, recording their complexities for prosterity. Kind of like an accidental historian I suppose. These brutal little Saga’s are still read by Icelandic children today. That’s how well preserved their language is, despite centuries of more practical evolution.

Selfoss is the last big town before Reykjavik and – according to the book – is where you simply stop to stock up on groceries, it being the ugliest towns in the whole country. Despite this disparaging description it has the most perfect little church perched on top of a hill – red roof and yellow’ish walls – right before the road winds up the mountains and into dense fog. Just as heavy grey curtains close in on us I point out a cluster of greenhouse-bubbles glowing gold in the rear view mirror (cue Marie: “Look girls! Not you Dawn. You slow down and look at the road”).

Apparently it would be criminal to leave Reykjavik without experiencing The Runtur – the round…basically a pub crawl – so we oblige willingly, dismissing tired limbs and heavy eyes. We tromp around in the drizzle looking for the bar our nice waitress recommended after serving us our delicious fish meal. Three or four lots of directions (and one wrong bar) later, we find our way into a little cosy nook with an oval shaped bar at it’s centre. We order stemmed glasses (no half pints) of the local beer. Quite appropriately it’s called ‘Borg’. We are sat for about thirty seconds before Thor (yes, Thor, God of War) and his friend (“the white version of Jamie Foxx”..we can kind of see it) start talking to us. A chat with some Icelanders. Shame they’re not quite as pretty as some of the other Icelandic boys we have spied (both in posters adorned by manly beards and fur lined hats, and clean shaven in real life hotel receptions and hire car companies).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEither way, I feel our day is now complete. Well, after some dancing, some live music at ‘The English Bar’ (something a bit upside down about that?) and too many different sorts of alcohol. We finally get to bed at 5am. I think we did ourselves proud with The Runtar. The next day at 11am we have the thick heads to prove it.

After a hungover breakfast of skyr (tastes like yoghurt but has the texture of whipped cream cheese) in pancakes at Cafe Loki, we set off in search of black volcanic beaches. On the way we realise that the colossal wheeled super-jeeps we are following are heading in the direction of Porsmorg: an area of outstanding natural beauty and a multitude of different flora thanks to it’s unique position in the midst of three glaciers:

“Follow them Dawn”. Okie dokie. As long as I don’t have to think for myself.

We end up at Seljalandsfoss. Another stunner of a waterfall. Not as magical as Gullfoss but special none the less. You can walk right behind it which is pretty cool, especially when it’s the height of Big Ben and pummels into the pool below at a pace so ferocious that you barely get two seconds to take a photo before your face is sopping wet and your camera lens becomes an unusuable wet smudge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Our heads are clearer now and we optimistically set off to Porsmorg before Marie discovers another essential fact in the Iceland ‘Lonely Planet’ book (which we should start referring to earlier really). Turns out that this slightly dodgy, crater blighted road will soon degenerate into a fully blown bolder strewn obstacle course. Ah. That explains the need for humongous wheels.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbout-turn! And we head back onto our original course, looking for the black sands of Vik i Myrdal.

Vik i Myrdal, or Vik as the locals call it, used to be a fishing outpost and it looks like the end of the earth. We unfold our sleepy limbs from the car and run onto the black pepper beach (finely ground), just as the days last light starts to snuff out.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn ethereal mist swirls around the top of the sea, clinging to Reynisdrangur: sea stacks which grasp upwards like desperate craggy fingers attempting an escape from the encroaching glacier of Myralsjokull.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe salty wave foam is bright white against the jet black sand and I’m sure Heston Blumenthal would be inspired to create some dramatic, out of this world signature dish were he to visit here.


The darkness and the fog tell us it’s time to turn back towards home, but we’re tempted off course by the bright lights of a lonely shop. We’re thrilled to see that they actually make the authentic Icelandic jumper here at Vikurprjon. You can see them in neat piles as you peer over the wooden railings of the shop’s first floor. They come in an impressive array of colours but each one is slightly different to the one before, so you know yours will be totally unique. They also make tiiiny littttle jumpers on keyrings. Claire is tempted, but at an equivalent of £20 that’s a pricey keyring, even if it is incredibly cute and minute. She settles instead on a fully grown cardigan in bold red, white and blue. Marie picks out some cosy mittens. It has to be done and Emma takes the plunge on an Icelandic jumper which might as well have had her name on it. It’s in a warm brown, with that typical white and orange diamond pattern gathered viking-like around the neck. It perfectly suits her autumnal colouring:

“Can I really spend £70 on a jumper? It doesn’t even have sleeves!”. The answer is yes Em, yes you can. And noone else in the world will have one just like yours, even if they have been clever enough to visit Iceland too.

Somehow, I manage to resist the urge to buy my own version in grey and white, and find myself a woolly hat instead. It might be a little bit itchy but it’s proudly brandishing pinkish purple snowflakes. And more importantly it’s a less bank balance damaging Kr3560 (£16 or thereabouts). I’m quite proud of my restraint. Justifiably I feel.

We’ve seen we’ve bought and now we need to conquer, so soothe our hungry bellies with breaded fish and chips in a diner surrounded by photos of what we’ve missed of Vik. Verdant mossy mountains, glorious sunsets and bright beaked puffins. We throw about the thought that we would definitely return here, but in Summer with more time and with more money. Diving between tectonic plates, coastal pony treks and traversing glaciers aboard snow mobiles would have to be on the agenda. Maybe we’d hire a gargantuan-tyred car too, in order to complete our aborted journey to Porsmorg.

Sadly, on the drive back to Reykavik from the South West – despite all the determinedly positive thinking – our heartfelt wishes to be unexpectedly treated to the whispy green lights of a Northern Lights Show remain unanswered. So, however you look at it, one day, we will have to come back.
One thing we are all very happy to have experienced is The Blue Lagoon. We stopped off there today. Well now it’s yesterday I suppose: I’m finishing this off at home at silly o’clock having run out of time on the plane back to Gatwick.

So this was our final treat. We diverted on this well beaten tourist trail on our way back to Keflavik and the airport. Nothing could polish off a holiday quite so idyllically as a dip in these natural craters of silky, milky, geothermal seawater.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAClaire and I help ourselves to ladels of gloopy white mud and plaster on an improvised facemask each. Judging by the other culprits dotted around the wide pool, we look like we probably belong to a tribe of long lost jungle-dwelling elders. We reckon it will be worth it though when, in forty years time, Emma and Marie jealously comment on our ridiculously fresh and youthful faces. Unfortunately for us, there is also now a facebook photo to prove how funky we look. And the likelihood is that the proof will remain there, online for the whole world to see, and available to still be laughed at in forty years time…wrinkles or no wrinkles.

Sipping strawberry champagne and toasting friendship (Marie), volcanoes (me), happiness (Emma) and natural phenomenomenomenom (Claire) whilst immersed in naturally heated mineral rich, surprisingly aquamarine water, is something which I now think should be done at the end of every trip.

Iceland is not what I expected. Not that I knew what I expected. It’s a strangely alluring place. You start to think it’s colourless and grey and barren and then – as quickly as the weather is fickle – you happen upon something so jaw drop stunning that it seems like it can’t be from this planet. It’s a place of stark contrasts that I might have to explore more completely one day. Maybe in the brightness of midnight summer sun.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Having read this I thought it was extremely enlightening.
    I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this content together.
    I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading
    and posting comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

    November 4, 2015

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. half a day alone in Copenhagen | nuggets of sunshine

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.