For 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.
By 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.
There’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.
For 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.
Day 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.
And 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.
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.