On 15th September 2015 I flew to Iceland with my sister, and my sister’s boyfriend, for a 5 day holiday. For me, it was partly to celebrate my PhD and partly to celebrate, well, life really and feeling better! A year and a half ago, I wouldn’t have been able contemplate making such a trip, such was my tiredness and my anxiety. I barely left the house. So this was a holiday of celebration, a momentous occasion for me, and I wanted to do something special. Iceland was certainly that! So much so, we are already planning next year’s trip! Anyway, I wanted to share with you some of the highlights, some of the worries I had before going, and some of the downright silly stuff! Enjoy!
My first main concern was regarding potatoes! Ha, yes, I hear you say, we all worry about potatoes when planning a trip! If you’ve read my other blog pieces then you will know that my body seems to function best when I eat potatoes all day long. This is slightly trickier than planning to grab a butty when you are out and about. Then there is the fact I eat 5 or 6 meals per day. Again, if I enjoyed sandwiches, then it would be no problem. I don’t! So, how to organise that many potato based meals every day without dragging us all back to the apartment or constantly eating out. Neither of which was an option if we wanted to get out and about to see as many things as possible, without spending every last penny on food! I have worked out (from previously having to take meals out with me) that if I boil some potatoes, then whilst they are still hot, roll them around in lots of butter and salt, they actually still taste good when they have cooled down. Who’d have thought?! So my plan was to make a couple of meals each day to take out with me and just eat them cold. It worked well and I’m glad to report I had no traumas over meals, I simply made extra meals when I was cooking tea at night!
We flew to Iceland with EasyJet, and flights from Manchester to Reykjavik cost us only £100 return. These cheap flights were what made us realise that we actually could afford the trip if we were careful. We rented an apartment just outside the centre of Reykjavik (think we used Holiday Lettings site) which cost us around £240 for 5 nights (just £80 each) and we booked the Flybus from the airport to our apartment which was around £25 return. So, all in, travel and accommodation cost around £205 each. Not too shabby! Then, of course, we wanted to do some of the trips. Obviously we were going to do the northern lights tour (no question about that!) and that cost around £35. It was just the basic tour – coach to somewhere we could see the lights. There are other options available, such as seeing the lights by boat, on a glacier etc. with more cost involved but we were happy with the basic one. There are a lot of tours available but most are pretty expensive. After much deliberation, we decided on the Golden Circle tour which included a trip to a hot spa. This cost around £67.50 and for this you got to see Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir geothermal area, Thingvellir National Park and visit Fontana’s natural steam baths. We booked these 2 tours before we went but left the rest of the time open so we could decide on things to do when we were there.
Getting there was no problem. The flight (although ridiculously early!) was pleasant enough and only took around 2 ½ hours, and it was easy to find the Flybus. It takes around 45 mins from the airport to Reykjavik, so we were at our apartment by 11.30am. The apartment was very nice, cosy (as it said in the description) and very warm! Good god was it warm! We never did figure out where the heat was coming from but every time we entered the apartment a wall of hot air hit us! This is probably very nice when the temperature is minus degrees but for us it was a bit much. It was a basement flat but it was light and airy with big windows. It had one bedroom and one sofa bed. My sister’s boyfriend had originally said he would sleep on the sofa bed (the trip was originally me and my sister!!) but I just thought it would be nicer for them to sleep together. Shoot me now! The sofa bed (as usual, as I have yet to find a comfy one) was one that you shouldn’t even (or maybe you should) put your worst enemy on! Your bum ended up about a foot lower than the rest of you! So I ended up taking the cushions off and putting them on the floor – pretty comfy at least. Next problem… my sister tends to pee a lot in the night! Why would this affect me though, you ask? Well because she had to walk through the living area (where I was sleeping) to get to the bathroom. She woke me up every time! So note to self… some things are worth paying more for! Next time we will have an apartment with bedrooms for everybody!
In order to combat the hot temperature of the apartment we left the windows open at night. I hate sleeping in hot rooms, and always like to have some fresh air circulating! One morning, around 6.50am a fluffy grey cat decided to take advantage of the windows at ground level and joined us in our apartment! It’s quite surreal to wake up to a loud meow, thinking ‘do I even HAVE a cat?’
Eating out in Iceland is fairly expensive. A meal in a restaurant seemed to easily cost around £20 (just the main course) and was often more, so most of the time we ate back at the apartment. We did find American burger places that cost around £11 for a nice meal though (I know, we didn’t exactly sample the local cuisine, but you do what you can with the budget you have!) There was a small supermarket on the main street, which had a variety of things (it had potatoes and eggs, so for me it was a winner! Lol!) and it was fairly reasonably priced. The only thing that caused me a problem was butter. Yes, butter! I probably should have looked up the word for butter before I went but I did not know a word of Icelandic when we touched down in the plane. I am one of those people that eat real butter. There are some health reasons why this is the case (that’s another blog post!) but mainly it’s because it tastes so much better. No, your ‘like butter’ is NOT like butter and yes I can tell it’s not butter thank you very much! So I stood looking at butter like products in the fridge and pondered which I should buy. I eventually settled on a big block that looked like it might be butter (no idea what I was basing that on) and off we went. It was foul! Looking up the word for butter – SMJÖR – it seemed like I had chosen a product that was ‘like butter’ – SMJÖRLIKA – or something like that!! Anyway, I reluctantly used it with my potatoes but was back to searching out butter the next day at the supermarket. This time I found the SMJÖR and headed back happily. Nope, it had barely any taste! What was going on with Icelandic butter? On further translations though, it turned out I had bought unsalted Icelandic butter. Oh, the trauma! Luckily my sister and her fella are aware of how bonkers I am so were unsurprised when I went back for another attempt! Finally, on just my 3rd attempt, I had lovely Icelandic, salted butter! None of it was wasted though as my sister and her fella thought there was nothing wrong with any of them!
The only other real trauma was with the shower in the apartment. The shower was in a little laundry/shower room, where the whole room is like a wet room and the plug hole was in the middle of the floor. The showers are sort of old fashioned looking… a large round flat metal head and a metal pipe leading up to it (well the one in the apartment and the ones at the spa were like this), and the one in our apartment had 3 flat metal levers to control it. Not a dial in sight! No indication of which might be which. Also, I think they have no health and safety about the heat of their water, which gets ridiculously hot. So I messed about with the levers until all was well and started to enjoy my shower. It poured a huge amount of water onto your head and was fantastic. The plug hole didn’t drain too fast though so water started to build up around my ankles, not really a problem, until it was time to turn everything off! I hadn’t really taken much notice of which lever did which so I just moved the ones I thought would turn it off. I pushed them all in the various up down, side to side positions (or so I thought) and didn’t manage to turn the water off. I only managed to make it so hot I had to leap out of the shower curtain! Then I couldn’t reach the levers properly! The room (which had someone else’s washing hanging in it as it was a communal laundry/shower room) started to fill up with steam and I was sloshing round in water past my ankles!! I went from one side of the shower to the other, trying to avoid the scalding water and push the levers around, whilst the room turned into a steam room! Finally, I had to fling the door open, and yell for my sister to come rescue me. Turns out there was just one direction (not the boy band!) that I hadn’t pushed the lever to the right in. Doh!
More of a trauma for my sister and her fella was the fact that alcohol is only sold via government shops, you can’t just pick it up in the local supermarket (you can get real coke in the supermarket so that was good enough for me! Apparently, Icelanders drink more coco cola per capita than any other nation) so you have to search out the few shops that sell it and they are only open between certain hours. On the last occasion we went to one of these shops, my sister’s fella chose the 10% beer to accompany his other beer (perhaps in celebration to the fact we’d made it to one of these shops) and then was unable to finish the card game we were playing in the evening! Mumbled something about us being able to sort it out and then promptly passed out on the bed!
The trips were great! On the second day we decided to go on the whale watching tour in the afternoon as the Northern Lights tour wasn’t until the evening. They warned us as we got on the boat that it was pretty rough out in the open sea. They weren’t wrong! It was a fairly awesome experience as the boat rocked about quite a bit. Unfortunately not everyone found it awesome, and some people were downstairs on the boat, quietly vomiting into brown bags!! Not us though, we stayed on the upper deck, outside, watching the choppy waves and the spray, but unfortunately not the whales. There were no whales to be seen! The waves were so big you couldn’t tell if there were whales there or not. It was a bit disappointing initially but when we arrived back in the harbour we were given complimentary tickets to go out again. When we went out a couple of days later it could not have been more different. It was so calm it was like a millpond! I’ve never seen the sea so calm. Even better, we got to see Minke whales, Harbour porpoises, and dolphins. Perfect!
For the Northern Lights tour we were picked up outside our apartment at 9.30pm. I was ridiculously excited! Seeing the northern lights has been on my to do list for quite some time. If there’s a chance we might see them at home, I call my sister and we go on a late night excursion! We’ve never managed to see them yet but I do have some very funny tales about our trips (again, another blog post!!) The coach drove us to a car park by a cave – apparently parts of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were filmed there – where it was nice and dark, away from the city lights. We all piled off the coach and stared up at the sky! At first you have no clue what you are looking for. It’s not as obvious as you see in photographs and often starts as a very thin white area that looks like cloud. You realise it’s not cloud though as it moves and dances across the sky. It may not have been as glorious technicolour as I was expecting but that did not make it any less special. Standing there, watching the lights swirling across the sky was a truly magical experience and I highly recommend it. I felt quite emotional and also more determined to see it again (and again, and again!). Then we were ushered back on to the coach and the experience was over. We had an hour watching the lights but I wish we had had much longer. The tour was good, as obviously they know exactly where to take you, and they tell you what you are looking out for, and point out the first movements when you get there, but I still can’t help but think it would be better to hire a car and drive yourself out somewhere away from the city. Then you can stay and watch the lights as long as you like. I guess the company operate the tours every night (when the lights are active and the weather clear) so they see them all the time, and probably just want to get home to bed, but for the average person it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and it would be nice to get a bit longer!
The Golden Circle tour was an all day tour and we got picked up (again outside our apartment) at 8.30am. I know, very early, but we deliberately booked it later in the week so we could recover from our late night watching the northern lights. There is much more time spent on the coach on this trip but they do tell you interesting facts on the journey, and you do get plenty of stops. First off we had a stop at a little centre where you can read people’s stories about earthquakes in Iceland and you can see the gap between the tectonic plates. Next stop was Gullfoss, the beautiful waterfall. It was immense! You can get pretty close to it and at one part of the path you get wet from the spray.
After that it was the Geysir geothermal area where you get to see the boiling mud pits and the exploding geyser. The geyser erupts around every 8 minutes so you don’t have to wait too long to see it. After we’d had a good look around this area we got to try out the Icelandic Lamb Soup in the café. This was the first (and only!) traditional Icelandic dish we tried and it was absolutely delicious!
With our stomachs full of excellent food we headed off to our next stop, the Fontana Wellness Centre (natural steam baths). First they showed us how they bake their traditional rye bread in the bubbling earth outside the centre, and we got to try some of the hot, freshly baked bread (with real butter!). Delicious! Then into the baths we went…mmmm! The four pools were all different temperatures so when one got too hot you could move into a slightly cooler one. There was a lake just outside the centre that you could walk down to, and at the edge it was warm, which lulled you into a false sense of oooo… a warm lake! As soon as you got ankle deep it was freezing! My sister made a rather interesting entrance to the lake though, as she tried to ease herself off the decking (I had wandered down the gravelly slope and was wondering what she was doing) and promptly disappeared. Yes, the daft girl had stumbled as she stepped down and then fell in!! I didn’t laugh for too long, promise!! Then it turned out she had cut her toe and was leaving a rather dubious trail of blood behind her – not very becoming of a wellness centre! The staff were quick to hand over a plaster though and we soon had her cut toe sorted out! I can’t describe how relaxing this was. It was such a beautiful day, the sky was a beautiful blue colour and we were outside in lovely hot water. Bliss!
The last stop of the day was at Thingvellir National Park, where we got to see the tectonic plate rift between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate. It was immense! What an absolutely epic day. We were all shattered when we arrived back at our uber hot apartment!
On our last day we chose to wander round Reykjavik and check out some of the museums. We were thinking of doing another tour but they were all pretty expensive so decided against it. First my sister and I went to the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is basically a museum of penises and penile parts belonging to all types of mammal found in the country! My sister’s boyfriend gave that one a miss and wandered off to see other things! After that we checked out the Northern Lights centre (Aurora Reykjavik) which had some interesting information about the lights and how to capture them on your camera (we should have gone there before our northern lights tour! Lol!), plus it had a film of many aurora’s that have been captured, which was absolutely beautiful. I bought myself a very funky hat from the gift shop there for my next northern lights excursion! Our last stop on the last day was the Whales of Iceland Museum. I didn’t really know what to expect as we hadn’t looked up anything about these museums, we had only googled things to do around Reykjavik and then headed on out! Well, it was truly amazing. This should definitely be on your list of things to do in Reykjavik! Whales of Iceland is an amazing (yes I know I just said that, but it really is!) exhibition of life-size models of whales and dolphins. What a great way to learn about whales and dolphins and get an idea of just how big they are!
All in all, an incredible holiday, and yes we do plan to return next year. We had an excellent time, with lots of laughs and not a cross word among us! What will we be doing differently? Well, we will definitely hire a car so we can see more of the Island. The tours are great but very expensive for what they are. Most of the places we visited on the Golden Circle tour (apart from the spa baths) are actually free to get in, so with a coach tour you are only really paying for the travel (and a little bit of information on the way there). We did pay more for our trip as it included the spa baths but of course you can just drive there yourself and pay to go in. Next time I also want to go see glaciers and volcanos! Hopefully next year I will be able to do more walking or hiking. This time I was just about fine with the walking we did. It was about a 25 minute walk from our apartment, through the City Centre and down to the harbour. I think we did that most days. On the last day my sister and I got the bus from the City Centre to the harbour as I was getting a bit tired and didn’t want to ruin the last day. We met her fella down at the harbour (as he had been avoiding the penis museum!!) It was great that I was able to do all the things we’d planned without getting ridiculously tired. The strangest thing that happened healthwise was that my skin (which was getting nice and soft) went very dry after the spa baths. I wasn’t expecting that as I thought all the minerals in the water would be good for it. Although after a couple of days the dryness started to disappear again. My sleep wasn’t that great whilst we were away but it’s hard to say if that was because I was in a strange bed (or rather on some cushions on the floor), or because my sister peed a lot (!), or because I probably should have eaten a bit more food because of all the walking I was doing (a lot more than normal!). I tried not to worry too much about it but by the time we came home I was shattered! When we came through security on the way home and the man asked where I had been I just stared at him! Lol! He had to repeat it before I could answer. When I finally got home that night and tried to get a good night’s sleep, both children were sick and a mouse appeared in my daughter’s bedroom! Aaaggghh… welcome home! Farewell Iceland… we will be back!