Arriving in Iceland
Leaving the heat of a sweltering Sydney summer, it was bliss to arrive in our first Nordic country of Iceland at a cool and wet 5°C with an apparent of 1°C! At this time of year, the sun doesn’t rise until 11:30am and sets at 3:30pm, so we just managed to catch a bit of daylight, despite the overcast sky.
In the Flybus to the centre of Raykjavik (the cheapest airport transfer on offer) we caught our first glimpse of a rainy Iceland. Bleak and wild, we could see no image represented in the many photographs of our research. It was flat and underwhelming, and there was certainly no snow. Then we arrived in the city, and the Christmas decorations and lights and the quaint architecture brought the place to life.
Out of the bus, dragging our bags behind us, head down against the rain, we found our hotel in a roundabout way, literally! Getting off the bus we turned left up the street when we should’ve turned right down the street to where the entrance was only metres away. We managed to circle the whole block before finding it.
Canopy by Hilton, Reykjavik
We checked in at the Canopy by Hilton (the first of the Canopy hotels in the world), and relaxed the moment we walked through the doors – it’s always such a relief when a hotel meets expectations. It was such a funky place. The design was all clean Icelandic lines, with simple, retro furniture.
Our room itself (a king room) was compact, but well-designed with a good sized bathroom with a large shower and underfloor heating. There was plenty of space for unpacking – ample wardrobe hanging space, shelves and drawers for a complete emptying of the suitcases. Our room even had a small foyer-like entry that could be closed off from the rest of the room, the perfect place to remove coats and boots and even store the empty suitcases. The room itself was toasty warm, and the radiator wasn’t even on. There was the added benefit of windows that could be opened if there was a need for fresh air.
A thankfully empty small fridge provided enough room for us to put a couple of wine bottles and sparkling water in for our stay, so we didn’t always have to eat out, but could bring things back to our room to save a few precious dollars in this expensive country.
Even with the most well designed room and tasteful décor, the one expectation of a good hotel room is to provide its guests a good night’s sleep, and this place did! An incredibly comfortable bed with a range of pillow choices and a room with good soundproofing meant that we had an undisturbed and restful sleep.
Canopy by Hilton offers a daily happy hour 4-6pm with 50% off some drinks, plus an Iceland tasting time 6-7pm, which offers samples of local beer, cheese and smoked meats. While happy hour was in the bar, the ‘tasting time’ was in the Canopy Central Café in the foyer, where you could also help yourself to a variety of snacks and beverages even when the café was closed – you just had to let reception know to add it to your bill.
The breakfast buffet provided in abundance with enough choices to satisfy even the fussy vegetarian, low carbs, no sugar guests like ourselves. This was served daily in the Geriri Smart Restaurant, which we didn’t end up trying for any meal other than breakfast – we were too busy out and about during our time in the city.
The public areas of the hotel also provided plenty of discreet spots for sitting and relaxing, with an atmosphere of being in an apartment rather than hotel – albeit a gorgeous apartment of a television show that no one on a regular wage could afford to live in. But it was tranquil, warm and pleasing to look at, and we were happy we chose it for our Reykjavik stay.
Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon Tour
Pre travel research led us to Nice Travel as our tour company for an 11 hour tour of some of the top sights within a day trip drive of the capital. Such a big day meant an early start, but with our hearty breakfast, we were fortified for what lay ahead.
Marek was our guide, and he was exceptional – funny, knowledgeable and professional. He was also very patient with the occasional late comer returning to the bus. I know he did not weave the magic of the weather, but the timing of our stops was so good that the snow showers (mini blizzards) halted enough at each site for us to have a good time there. Great day! The bus was really comfortable as well, which is important when spending so much time driving (a Mercedes mini bus – VERY comfy seats, warm, USB power supplies and better wifi than at home!)
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park
Our first stop on the Golden Circle Tour was Thingvellir National Park. It had to be explained to me the pop culture importance of this location: it’s the site of The Wall scene from the television series Game of Thrones. I just thought it was a fantastic behemoth of rock that people were risking slipping and sliding on to scale to the top to watch the sunrise at 11:20am (the first light started in the sky at 10:30am).
This site is also of historical and geological importance, as well as being the only UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Icelandic mainland. It is where in 930 AD thirty ruling chiefs gathered to create a commonwealth on the island. “What these early Icelanders did was create a crude version of a modern-day representative parliament in response to absolute monarchy, about 800 years before such ideas came into play in the USA and France.” (guidetoiceland.is) The direct translation of the name is ‘Fields of Parliament.’
The geological aspects of the site are unique. The entire region is located in a rift valley created by the drifting apart of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and these plates are drifting in opposite direction at the rate of 2cm annually.
While standing in this extraordinary place, being educated by our guide, it started to snow. This was my first experience of actually being out in the snow as it was falling in soft, full, fluffy flakes, not the slushy attempts at snow that became the compacted, icy mounds by the side of the road of the Blue Mountains in NSW, Australia. This was magical, made all the more entrancing by the location of the stone Viking gorge and mirror lakes.
We nearly didn’t do the additional 20 minute walk offered to us to meet the van in a different parking lot at the end of the trail through the gorge – it had started to snow much harder and we were concerned about slipping on the icy path. But the weather calmed and we risked it, even without our crampons on our boots, and were so glad we did – the faint morning light seeping through the clouds made it so worth it.
The actual geyser we visited at Geysir is the Strokkur geyser; the original Geysir no longer erupts. Geysir was the first geyser described in a printed source and the first known to modern Europeans. As our little bus load began walking towards it, it started to snow again, so we left the crowd and ducked back to the visitor centre for an early lunch, already familiar with the on again off again light snow fall in the area. It was a wise move – we beat the crowds at lunch and then again at the spurting Strokkur as they made their way down the path in search of some hot soup, all sodden from standing out in the snow.
Less than 10 km from Geysir is the magnificent Gullfoss (Golden Falls). Traversing the slippery path with caution (still no crampons), we reached the two prime viewing spots with no mishap. The southward flowing Hvita River cascades down 32 metres in two stages of dramatic natural display, framed by the 70 metres high walls of the canyon. I can only imagine how it must look in summer, and would love to return at that time of year for a second experience.
Kerid Crater is a volcanic crater lake along the Golden Circle (one of several crater lakes in the area). This caldera is composed of red (rather than black) volcanic rock and would be quite verdant in the warm months. But we were more than content with the lovely dusting of snow on the rock surfaces, which we imagined to be a nicer experience than having the entire area completely snowed in. It was soon time to move on when the light snowfall started to increase, and we were glad to be inside the minibus when the blizzard-like conditions began.
I know that everyone who has ever been to Iceland raves about the Blue Lagoon, and I understand the appeal in theory, but we were apprehensive, and weren’t sure we could be bothered with the whole thing. But had already paid for it in our tour, so we got on with it. We arrived not long after 5pm, but didn’t get into the place until 5:30pm due to the line and processing of our group entry. It’s an absolute machine, churning through the bookings and bracelet issuance, and there were some in our group who hadn’t booked ahead and they missed out.
We had the comfort package, which was bottom of the line in the deals on offer, but it was all we really needed. This included a towel, facial treatment mask, and one drink. We were strapped with a waterproof bracelet that kept a record of drink orders and treatments taken and let loose in the complex.
Instructions were to shower naked and wash thoroughly beforehand. I was one of only about 4 women I saw doing that. The rest of the precious things were doing it in their swimmers. Wimps. Met John at the group meeting point and we both made a dash to the water through the icy cold winter’s night (remember that it gets dark at 3:30pm at this time of year). We didn’t realise that there was a more gentle way of entering the water INDOORS!! We certainly exited that way, though. The hot springs really were hot, for which we were so grateful. Other ‘hot’ springs we had experienced in Costa Rica were only luke warm at their warmest, and that was my greatest concern of this experience. No fear. Some spots were so hot that we had to move on. It was magical and mysterious doing this whole thing in the dark. Yes, there was a lot of concealed lighting around, but a lot of it was pretty dim. There was a brief moment where all the guests took shelter under the footbridges to escape the stinging sleet that descended. Didn’t last long, and everyone went back to paddling and sipping in the steamy dark.
We enjoyed an ‘extra dry’ prosecco at the swim up bar and basically walked around in the water through the whole expanse of springs on offer, and it was huge. There were far fewer people in the water at 6pm than expected, but I guess the middle of the day is far more popular. The only thing that could’ve made this a more enjoyable experience is if we had seen the Northern Lights from the lagoon. That would’ve been magical (and has been known to happen).
The hour ride back to the city was a relaxed one after our geothermal spa experience, and we snacked and sipped before heading to bed for a blissful night’s sleep.
Exploring Reykjavik City
The old part of Reykjavik is filled with delightful shopping streets, and at this time of year, they were still embellished with the vibe and bling of the Christmas season. There were an abundance of tempting items calling us from a number of clothing and jewellery windows, but apart from the serious investment of ‘vegan’ winter coats from 66° North (in anticipation of the truly cold weather we would experience in Norway above the Arctic Circle), we refrained.
We discovered a vegan chain restaurant called Gló, with healthy and delicious food options, and not really any more expensive than the less appealing choices like pizza. We each had a bowl of a mixture of salad and grains and other bits and pieces plus a glass of wine each and it totalled $75 AUD. This is just the way of it in these Nordic countries, so you can see why people fill up on their hotel breakfast buffets!
Reykjavik is a UNESCO City of Literature, and was the first non-native English speaking city to receive this accolade. While we didn’t partake in any literary or theatrical pursuits during our short time there, we did manage to fit in some other cultural, historical and artistic diversions.
After our lunch at Gló we popped into the Hallgrimskirkja Church on the top of the hill. Our intention of taking the lift to the top of the spire was thwarted by the $15 AUD fee and a huge line, so we just decided to check out the church itself. Ended up being a serendipitous decision: three musicians were rehearsing for a New Year’s Eve concert and even in a truncated, edited and choppy form, it was perfection. The trio of two trumpeters and organist played Albinoni’s Adagio, one of the most beautifully melancholic pieces ever conceived. So thrilled we got to experience that! (Baldvin Oddsson – trumpet, Johann Nardeau – trumpet, Bjorn Steiner Solbergsson – organ).
Using our Reykjavik day pass (which also got has free local bus travel), we went to the National Gallery of Iceland; a small gallery, but of excellent quality. Not that we needed to enter the gallery to see artworks – there were various sculptures and street art throughout the city.
From there we went to one of the several buildings in the Reykjavik Museum collection – The Settlement Exhibition. This was an actual excavation exhibit that was discovered in 2001 when they were digging to construct a new building, and is the earliest evidence of human settlement in the city. It was an informative and engaging exhibit, with excellent interactive AV points to show how the building was constructed and what it was used for.
Full of ambition, we headed across to the Harpa Concert Hall to see about buying tickets to a stand up comedy show about becoming Icelandic. But by the time we got there, we were so tired from all the walking we had done that day, that we decided a night in with some takeaway from Gló was in order. At least we got to see the building in all its icy splendour.
We savoured the walk back to our hotel, enjoying the fading light and the colourful festive displays. What we now need is a return visit to Iceland in summer – purely as a point of comparison, of course!
Onward to Norway…
Accommodation: Canopy by Hilton
Tour Company: Nice Travel