Friday, 1 January 2016

Reykjavik (Nov 2015)

This was my first time travelling with Iceland Air and it wasn’t that different from BA short haul flights. My flight landed just before 4pm as the sun was starting to set. The sky was an amazing colour with a lovely green glow.
From the airport to the Blue Lagoon took about twenty minutes. Washing naked in front of strangers before putting on a swimsuit to enter the lagoon didn’t faze me as I’ve bathed naked in an onsen in Japan. Leaving the warmth of the shower, to walk into the freezing cold was another matter altogether! I kept my towel around me until the last minute and left it at the side of the lagoon. The water was amazing. A lot hotter in some areas than others but amazing. It was dark and there was limited lighting so once I reached the middle part of the lagoon it was like bathing in the dark. I was obliged to try the white, facial mud. I know everyone raves about it but it seemed to make no difference to my skin whatsoever. The cave and waterfall experience were both lovely and even though I popped into the steam and sauna room, I didn’t stay long as I have access to those at my spa in London.
On the journey back to the hotel I kept a keen eye out for the northern lights - but to no avail.
The Holt Hotel was a quaint little boutique hotel but I didn’t love it. In facet, for the price I paid I barely liked it but the location was good and the room clean so I won’t complain.
On day two I awoke with all the zeal and excitement that I usually do when exploring new territory. After breakfast I made my way to the Sunday morning church service at Hallgrimskirkja as it was a 5 minute walk away. The exterior of the church was fascinating. The service was in Icelandic but there was a welcome at the start in English. I enjoyed the choir’s singing and playing spot the word during the main sermon. I recognised the words Snapchat, Facebook and Bethlehem although no idea what was said about any. There are 14 vowels alone in Icelandic, each with a distinct pronunciation and it is possible to have an entire sentence made up purely of vowels. Other than the usual hello and goodbye, I was not about to try learning the lingo for a 6 day visit.
After the main service coffee and Quality Street chocolates were being served at the back and it gave me the opportunity to meet up with some other visitors to the city. I spent about twenty minutes speaking to a lovely woman from Hong Kong who was on her second visit to Iceland and was staying for three months and a couple (him from Romania, her from Norway) who were there for the husband’s work.
That afternoon I did a walking tour with Citywalk Reykjavik which was very informative and the rain only sprinkled occasionally so it wasn’t too taxing. After the walk I was ready for my first taste of the famous Icelandic hotdog. Baejarins Beztu Pylsur was highly rated on Tripadvisor and even mentioned by the tour guide so this was an obvious stop. I didn’t even ask what the various toppings were, I just obediently asked for one with everything on and I didn’t regret it. The crispy onions were wonderful.

A walk in the rain…and wind. The northern lights tour was cancelled due to bad weather, so what did I decide to do? Take a walk to the harbour no less in the pouring rain and biting wind. But I was suitably attired and filled up first on warm lamb soup from Loki Cafe (thought it was more a case of spot the lamb in the soup). When I reached the harbour the wind was unrelenting and I was glad I had a raincoat on over my coat as the rain was indeed torrential.
Day three. The whale watching cruise was cancelled due to bad weather and later, the northern lights tour was cancelled again for that evening. With nothing else planned, I spontaneously decided to purchase a Reykjavik Pass (RP) which would allow access to a range of museum, swimming baths and discounts off of certain restaurants. The first museum I visited was Arbaer Open Air Museum. It was about half an hour outside the city centre which gave me my first taste of public transport in the city. It was a rainy day and the museum is only accessible with a tour guide so it was like having a private tour of the museum.I left with a greeter understanding of some of the hardships faced by early Icelanders and a look at some authentic dwellings. I also entered what was by far the smallest church I’d ever been in. From there I made my way to the Settlement Exhibition back in the centre of town. 
By the time I left I was overdosed on Icelandic history so after a brief stop at the hotel to shower and change I made my way to Reykjavik Restaurant for a seafood feast. On my to eat list for this holiday were Whale, Puffin and Reindeer. I crossed off the first at this restaurant. It wasn’t as chewy as I thought although the colour surprised me, some pieces were black and others purple. 10% off the bill with the RP was a nice end to the meal. 
Not quite ready to call it a night I made a visit to Volcano House where I watched a short film on the 1973 volcanic eruption in the Westman island which covered half the town in lava and the more recent 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull which caused chaos all around Europe with air traffic. This one I remember well as I was sitting at the airport praying my flight to Japan would go ahead as scheduled as several flights had been cancelled in the previous days. Fortunately my flight left on time, unfortunately it was the last to leave that evening as they stopped all other flights. After the film there was the opportunity to touch and feel real bit of stones and ash from the volcanoes and learn about the different types of rocks but to be honest my brain was still overloaded from the day’s visits and my belly full from dinner so not much stuck.
Day four started off snowing but that didn’t hinder the Golden Circle tour going ahead. The first stop at Thingvellir National Park was mesmerising. Not only did I get to stand between the American an Eurasian tectonic plates which are pulling apart at the rate of a few centimetres each year but the sunrise above the snow peaked mountains and lakes was indescribable. I guess being in a country with a sunrise after 10am does have its advantages. The Geysir geothermal area was fascinating as well; watching Strokkur geyser shoot up every 4 - 8 minutes and getting as high as 100 feet. We were warned of the dangers of touching the water which could be in access of 80 degrees. I couldn’t help but step gently into a puddle and feel the warmth of the water through my snow boots and thick socks. The Gullfoss waterfall was less impressive as I couldn’t help but compare t to Niagara Falls in Canada. The lamb soup at the Gullfoss cafe was lovely. Lots of lamb and great flavours but best of all, the bowls are refillable as are the bread rolls. If you’re on budget, which you may well be with the seemingly extortionate prices in Iceland, you can get one bowl with two spoons and share. The final stop to watch a horse theatre show was the lowlight of the day but it did give me a chance to see the famous Icelandic horses up close.
Low and behold the Northern Lights tour went ahead but it was still very cloudy and unfortunately no lights were spotted so I’ll get a chance to go again tomorrow night for free. By the time I collapsed into my bed at 2am, I was done.
Despite the very late bedtime I was up and out before 9am to visit one of the local baths on day five. I sat outside on a rooftop in a 42 degree pool while the air around me a -4. A lovely experience but not for the faint hearted where cold is concerned. From there it was a trip to the tower at the top of Hallgrimskirkja for a beautiful view of the city. Funnily enough on night two I had gone to look for the Solfar, Sun Voyager, sculpture but hadn’t found it but I could see it off in the distance from the tower. So on leaving the tower I headed to it for a few quick snaps before rushing back to the hotel to get changed for the whale watching tour.  I sometimes feel a little seasick on boats and not liking the sounds of some of the side effects of motion sickness tables I opted for antihistamines which are meant to help but with much subtler effects. Before board I was offered a seasickness tablet by the crew as there was still some swells from the storm a couple of days earlier. I declined as I had already taken something but upon boarding I was offered some again by the guide and she seemed very insistent so I took one. There were quite a few people below deck eating sandwiches etc being sold on board and I immediately thought this was a bad idea. Once clothed in my floatation suit I headed to the top deck and remained outside for the duration of the tour as the fresh air helps against seasickness. The sea was chopping, extremely chopping and the wind and rain battered me something unbelievable but I held firm and stayed the three hours. No whales were spotted and I did feel a bit disappointed that i endured all that for nothing. Upon my return below deck, I heard that some of the people munching away on sandwiches at the beginning had regretted it as there were tales of them being sick. By this time my fingers were so numb form the cold that I needed assistance to get out of my suit. Thankfully I had a transfer booked back to the hotel. Even though it would have been a fifteen minute walk from the harbour i was glad as I had begun to feel a little queasy. After thawing out I headed back to town to try two more of the food ons my ‘must eat in Iceland’ list; puffin and reindeer. The puffin was served cold as a starter. It was black and had a texture like a slightly thick cut if smoke salmon. I asked the waiter how it was cooked and he said it was indeed smoked. My reindeer was in the form of a burger. Slightly saltier than beef but I had no qualms about eating Rudolph and in fact quite enjoyed it. As afore mentioned prices in Iceland are quite steep and the burger served with fries set me back approximately £17 by the time the cost of the puffin was added, I was glad my Reykjavik pass was accepted here. It wasn’t mentioned in the booklet but I thought I’d take the chance and ask and low and behold I got 15% knocked ofd the bill. As the Northern Lights tour was once again cancelled due to bad weather, I had an early(ish) night to make up for last night.
My last day came around quicker than I would have liked. Another early start for a visit to the National Museum and then an early lunch, 11.30am, at Apotek. A lovely three course lunch was my last (and best) meal in Reykjavik. The short rib starter was cooked to perfection, very moist with a lovely sauce. Then the main course of plaice was one of the best fillets of fish I’ve had in years. Very fresh and decently sized. The dessert, caramel crankie, was decadent with edible gold and an amazing coulis. The only thing I didn’t enjoy food wise was the complimentary cranberry bread and orange butter, but that’s a personal preference as I don’t like fruit in bread. A quick dash back to the hotel to collect my cases and wait for my transfer back to the airport. Amazing country, amazing people and a very interesting culture. For example everyone takes their father’s name resulting in being called Son of and Daughter of as opposed to traditional surnames. My favourite of all though is the app that tells you in seconds if someone you’ve met on a night out is a relative; in an island of 320,000 I guess it’s crucial. I also learned that when you meet someone for the first time instead of the usual greeting of ‘how are you’ you ask ‘what people are you from’ meaning what family do you come from…I could just imagine the snares I’d get asking someone that question in the UK. 
By God’s grace I will be back some day.

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