Iceland ...If you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes

 

Some of the 80,000 Icelandic horsesFor those with short memories, June 2012 was not a month of summer in the UK, but 30 days of the heaviest rainfall on record; indeed relentlessly miserable weather which felt more like November.  It may have stayed light until late, but it was rarely something to celebrate outdoors.

Escaping to the sun for a few days was one option, but the chance to visit a land where every kind of weather condition was a possibility, and where they really know a thing or two about the midnight sun was far more exciting.

Scheduled flights at civilised times are available, but I selected the low cost option with Iceland Express, the downside being a brutal departure time of 1am from Stansted (just a few tourists, some hardy looking Icelandic natives and the cleaners in the deserted departure lounge).  The plane took off in the darkness (and rain) in the middle of the night; but that was the last time that we would see the dark until the return flight a few days later.

The Geysir in full flowBy 3am we were in broad daylight and flying over a slightly surreal and barren landscape of volcanic earth, larva and rocks.  There didn’t seem to be a building in sight apart from the odd farm. After landing at Reykjavik airport, an easy 40 minute coach journey brought us into the capital city (there are no railways in Iceland, and in fact no motorways either). It was chilly and, until reaching the city outskirts, felt like the road to nowhere.
    
Reykjavik itself would be a provincial town anywhere else in Europe, but 80% of the country’s 320,000 population live in or near this pleasant pint-sized capital.  As our guide explained, there is Reykjavik and there is the countryside; nothing else.  She was right: once you get past the final building in the outskirts, it’s back to nature at its most powerful.   And the whole world became very aware of that back in April 2011 when Ejafjallayokl  (pronounced Aye-a-fiat-la-yolkel) erupted and brought European air traffic to a standstill.

A half day is sufficient to see most of Reykjavik; it’s easily navigated on foot.  A fabulous new glass fronted cultural centre (the Harpa) has been built on the water’s edge with a comprehensive programme of entertainment (ranging from comedy to classical music). The shops appear to mainly sell woollens and warm clothing.  Bearing in mind this was June, I can say with certainty that I didn’t see anywhere selling summer clothes. And that’s not really a surprise with the average temperature rarely creeping above 20 degrees. Apparently there was one day of heatwave earlier in the month (25 degrees) and  an official half day off work was declared.

Our knowledgeable guide explains the uses of local flowersThere’s a charming casualness amongst the locals in the way they dress, best described as après-ski wear. Even the more fashionable Icelandic ladies wore sturdy shoes and everyone looked like they were ready for a day’s hiking. The pace is relaxed, and there seems to be no sign of any class system or ostentation. Doubtless there are plenty of wealthy Icelanders, but they are not flash. In fact I had to remind myself that this was the scene of the banking crisis in the not too distant past, and yet it felt nothing like a financial centre. A few businessmen ambled by (in suits and walking boots), but nobody looked like they were in a hurry to close a deal.

When it comes to creature comforts, Reykjavik is the second highest consumer of electricity and power in the world. Lit up like a beacon throughout the winter months, with only Las Vegas ahead (although for very different reasons of course), eco-friendliness does have its limits after all.

Getting out and about is a must, and there's an impressive range of excursions which can be booked through Discover the World, including Reykjavik Excursions whose tour guides are clearly handpicked geographers and geologists, each one passionate about their country and very knowledgeable about the history, rock formations, volcanoes, flora and fauna.

The Golden FallsFor my three day visit I wanted to pack in as much as possible so selected a half day Golden Circle tour, a full day South Shore tour and finally a Blue Lagoon experience. That combined with a half day in Reykjavik was a perfect combination. The Golden Circle is a tourist route, but worth doing because it takes in some important landmarks. Firstly, Thingvellir, the seat of the original Parliament, then the quite breath-taking Golden Falls, and finally the Geysir (the eponymous geyser), which obligingly spurts most  impressively every 5-7 minutes.

En route, we learned from our guide about sagas, the tales of Icelandic folklore, the elves and their semi-circles of rocks. We saw some of the 80,000 Icelandic horses that roam the countryside (that’s more than 1 for every 4 people). We learned about the way in which people are named in Iceland – a man takes his father’s Christian name, plus Son, and a woman her father’s Christian name + daughter.  And finally I understood  how Magnus Magnusson came to be  named.  Magnus, son of Magnus - literally. It’s all so simple.

A sculpture on the Reykjavic coastDay two saw us on the South Shore excursion, a spectacular full day of driving, magnificent waterfalls, villages, raging sea, volcanoes, glacier walking, a folklore museum and a lot of talking by our guide who was truly a living encyclopaedia of his country.

Day three was a visit to the Blue Lagoon, the only really smart commercial place we visited. It’s set up for corporate trips with the staff in dressed up in fancy uniforms with bow ties which, given the laid back nature of the rest of the country, seems a little excessive. But the lagoon itself is incredible, the world’s largest natural swimming pool complete with mud face packs and an unforgettable view.

Iceland is a raw and beautiful wilderness, a geographer’s paradise, and a sculpture of the forces of nature. Visiting in the mid-summer and experiencing the midnight sun is highly recommended, although of course a price must be paid for all that summer light, and a visit in winter would find daylight for only a sparse few hours.

3am on the Reykjavic shorlineAnd the weather?  Four seasons in a day;  beautiful clear skies, thick clouds, strong winds, heavy rainfall, bright sunshine, hot enough for a t-shirt, chilly enough for a jacket.  Constantly changing and all the more enjoyable an experience for it.

Tip:

When booking a short break to Iceland, pre booking excursions is a very good idea as it means that your time can be maximised.  This is not a country where you want to sit around and do nothing.

The world's leading Iceland operator Discover the World offers a huge variety of holidays and suggestions, with the hardest part being what to leave out.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 18 Comment(s)

  • Jenjens
    almost 2 years ago
    Iceland was unlike anywhere I had ever been. The experience of visiting the Blue Lagoon during a particularly cold day was surreal. I have never had an experience quite like that of swimming in the hot springs during a snowstorm, and of dashing from the warm water (39 degrees) to the steam room (even warmer) with sub zero temperatures outside. It is something I shall never forget.
  • coolonespa
    almost 2 years ago
    A cracking thunderstorm has just driven me inside, so this was a very informative read on a possible future trip. Icelandic volcanoes erupting on the screen and a cracking explosion of thunder behind me made it an immersive experience:-)
  • Geoff
    over 3 years ago
    Sounds like a stunning place to visit, you certainly packed alot in. I remember seeing Julia Bradbury on TV in Iceland, a great show.
  • Ali-Jones
    about 4 years ago
    Possibly my favourite place to travel to. Arriving on Iceland feels like landing on the moon. The landscape is so different being built up of volcanic rock. I enjoyed the write up . Makes me feel I must plan a return visit.
  • Silver-Travel-Advisor
    about 5 years ago
    I'm so pleased to read that you enjoyed your time in Iceland - thanks for all the extra tips. I think you must have found a lot more on offer than I did in Reykyjavik - next time I will stay longer and do more research in advance...I'd love to go back and explore the remoter parts in the north as well.
  • daydreamer
    about 5 years ago
    Hello Debbie

    Back from Iceland and am already planning my next trip. Three nights were not enough.

    Depending on your interests, a half day may be far from enough in Reykjavik! We found lots of things we would like to have done but did not have time.

    We did buy a Welcome Card and quickly got the hang of the bus service. As some advice to future traveller, if you do not have a card,, the bus drivers only accept correct amount of cash and cant give change. The tickets are not expensive. The way the bus service appears to work is that you take a bus to a little bus station/terminus then change and take your next bus to another terminus/station.

    Many hotels will give you a map and note your nearest bus stop and the routes covered.

    Two important things to note. On the bus stop the timetable will say "Buses every 30 mins. This is a bit misleading as in fact each individual route runs every 30 mins so if three or four routes use that stop you will find a much greater frequency than 30 mins.

    Second point. On Sundays some routes dont run till midday or thereabouts. We discovered this to our cost one snowy Sunday morning but Icelanders are basically very kind and generous. A not-in-service bus stopped and picked us up and refused to accept a fare from those who did not have travel cards.

    I hope that information will be useful to any future Silver Traveller to Iceland.




  • Silver-Travel-Advisor
    over 5 years ago
    I had never heard of Husavik so have been looking at it this morning, and now would love to go there! I used Reykjavik Excursions who were very good - I did the South Shore tour with them which was excellent.... but I have looked at their site and can't see a tour which goes to Husavik. It might be worth checking though ...www.re.is

    Otherwise, there seem to be some specialists who offer tours / excursions eg.

    http://iceland.nordicvisitor.com/travel-guide/attractions/north-iceland/husavik/?rf=g146-75&gclid=CMualZfGpbsCFSnpwgodM1YAYw

    Or try www.visiticeland.com

    Otherwise, I know that self-drive car hire is an option if you are confident about driving. The roads are generally pretty good, if a bit desolate (I would not fancy breaking down!), and that might be a good way for flexible travel around the island.
  • keithydee
    over 5 years ago
    Thanks for the tips, this is one on my tick list, Any tips for travelling around the Island though as I want to get up to Husavik?.
  • daydreamer
    over 5 years ago
    Thank you Debbie for taking the time to reply so comprehensively. I would think that information would be helpful to anyone considering going there, especially re eating out and public transport. So I must think about a Blue Lagoon trip. If only we had more than tree nights/2 full days!

    Janet
  • Silver-Travel-Advisor
    over 5 years ago
    Dear Janet

    We did take some public buses within Reykjavik, these were not very frequent and seemed to finish mid evening. But there is a comprehensive service within the city itself so I would say it is worth checking out, especially if you can use your Welcome Card. I am not sure about public transport outside of the city (nb Icelanders refer to anything that is not Reykjavik as the "country", and once you get beyond the city boundaries, you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere!).

    We ate a two places in the centre of Reykjavik - the first was a very nice café on one of the main streets, with a nice homemade / organic feel about it. I'm afraid I can't recall the name - the cost was around £15 each for a very simple salad and bread lunch with water. I would say that compares to the upper end of London prices. The evening meal was on one of the side streets off the main shopping street. It was around £25 / person - again this was for a very simple one course meal and one beer. It would be easy to spend a lot more, and there are some very expensive restaurants around.

    I haven't heard reports of a municipal thermal pool, but would imagine that it would be a purpose built pool, albeit heated with thermal water. If it's included in the pass, then it might be worth a visit, but I would really recommend the Blue Lagoon for the sheer unique experience of a huge natural pool in the rocks. It really is unforgettable with awesome views, not to mention the mud facepacks, promising eternal youth!

    Please do write a review when you return, and just let me know if you need any more information. Debbie
  • daydreamer
    over 5 years ago
    Debbie, Please can I pester you with some more questions?

    Firstly, I was looking at the Welcome Card especially for to use for bus travel. Did you happen to notice how frequent or visible the buses were and how late they ran?

    Secondly, I have seen, elsewhere, frequent mention of expensive restaurants but no examples. Could you give me one example of a meal you had with cost? And the soups - typical price? This would help me save up/budget. Not the sheeps heads though.

    And thirdly, we are booked into a hotel within 1km of a municipal thermal swimming pool - have you experienced or heard any reports of these? It would also be coverd by the Welcome Card I think..

    If you arent able to answer any of these, then when we return I promise to write my own account of using the Welcome Card in Rekjavik.

    Thanks for your advice so far.
    Janet
  • Silver-Travel-Advisor
    over 5 years ago
    Well, from my experience, I can thoroughly recommend the mid-summer period. Just the sensation of 24 hour daylight is something I wlil never forget. It's also warmer (although in Icelandic terms, that means a top temperature of around 20 degrees on a good day!). Personally I would not want to go in the winter when it is so dark all the time.... so I would say between April and September.
  • TS_1
    over 5 years ago
    Thanks for the blog. When is the best time to visit Iceland?
  • Silver-Travel-Advisor
    over 5 years ago
    I'm really glad that you found this helpful. You can do a lot in a 3 night stay with careful planning. It's not a place where you want to sit around (too chilly!), and you can pack lots into each day. I didn't use the Reyjavik Welcome Card as I wasn't aware of it but I've now looked at what it offers, and if you are including a day in the city, it looks like a great option for free and discounted entries.
    It doesn't offer any restaurant discounts though... eating out is pretty expensive, and quite eclectic. Sheep's head is a local speciality... not quite my thing especially as presented looking like, well, a sheep's head! Whale steak (responsibly sourced) is also popular. If you are on a budget, I found the local soups to be a reasonable option. Just let me know if you need any more information. You will have a wonderful and unforgettable experience!
  • daydreamer
    over 5 years ago
    Thanks for this blog, Debbie. I've recently booked up a three night stay next March. You have already made me wish I had booked for longer. Our trips are pre-booked as you advised and I think you've included a lot of useful info in there.Did you use the Reyjavik Welcome Card?
  • ESW
    about 6 years ago
    I've been lucky and we have had two trips to Iceland. The first time in 2006, we took our car via the Faroe Islands (you can't do this any longer from UK ) and spent just over two weeks exploring the east side of the island. This is the place for the ice cap and glaciers as well as the volcanics and waterfalls.My trip report can be read here:
    http://www.slowtrav.com/tr/tripreport.asp?tripid=2016

    The second time we were based for a few days in Reykjavik before flying to ast Greenland, which included a day round the 'golden circle' .
    http://www.slowtrav.com/tr/tripreport.asp?tripid=1995&index=0
  • Jenny-Lunn
    about 6 years ago
    I agree that Iceland is well worth a visit. I went there at Easter last year and, like Debbie, I did the Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon tour. There was something unforgettable and surreal about swimming in the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon while snow fell on our heads! Yes - it was very, very cold outside - but very warm inside.

    We found the Icelanders to be very friendly and helpful - we thought that all the men looked like Vikings and the women like Agnetha from Abba! I would definitely like to go there again, but would not want to live there as I am not a great lover of cold temperatures. The terrain however is unlike anywhere else that I have ever been and many of the sights are quite unique. One downside however - apart from the cold - were the high prices everywhere which I would say were on a par with Switzerland and most of the Scandinavian countries.
  • Love2Travel_1
    over 6 years ago
    I have always wanted to visit Iceland.......and after reading this review makes me want to go even more.....I would also dearly love to go to Iceland to witness Whalewatching in the hope that I would see Humpback whales (which are the showoffs of the whaling community apparently!!)
    Love that you might get to experience 4 seasons in a day.....for someone like me who is easily bored ..this sounds like heaven!!!!