It’s a fact that many people are put off visiting Iceland simply by the name. Iceland sounds a lot colder than it is, indeed New York is often chillier than this fairly temperate island. I’m not saying it’s warm, and lovers of winter sunshine who normally visit the Canaries wouldn’t fancy it in January, but it’s not the deep freeze either.
We visited in Autumn, not to avoid the lower temperatures of the Winter months but to benefit from longer days. Six hours of daylight come January didn’t appeal to us even though we’d have probably seen the magnificent Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis are on our bucket list and one day we’ll just have to grin and bear the long nights to witness this spectacle.
As well as the Northern Lights it’s our intention to eventually circumnavigate the island. OK, this isn’t a feat to rival Marco Polo or Captain Cook, but we like to do things leisurely and we do a piece of Iceland each time we visit. And of course if you’re spending a major part of the day relaxing in spas, progress can be slow. Incidentally, the many spas, including the world famous Blue Lagoon and Laugarvatn Fontana, are another reason the weather becomes less of a handicap. Once you’re in 65 degree water you don’t notice the prevailing conditions. We’ve even drank cold beer in a warm river when sleet has been coming down and enjoyed every sip!
Talking of a warm river, one word sums up Iceland for me and the attraction it holds for us ….. unique. When friends ponder whether we’ve gone mad travelling close to the Arctic circle, I respond with one simple sentence. “Since we were last in the country, Iceland has a new biggest waterfall”. Surely there can’t be many nations in the world where that can happen. A new gigantic waterfall, almost 1,000 feet high. Caused by volcanic activity under a mammoth glacier. A new crack has appeared, water has spilled over, and creation spellbinds us once again. Yes, of course, I can well see the attraction of Tenerife in January. The beaches, the longer days, the warm sun and cold beers. But give me the grace and power of nature every time. Each to their own.
Reykjavik must surely be one of the most quaint capital cities in the world. The vast majority of Icelanders live here and in its outer lying areas. But that’s deceptive because the population is tiny. Iceland is the smallest country ever to qualify for the European football championships which are taking place in France this summer. At 340,000 many UK towns and cities are bigger. So Reykjavik isn’t a high rise horror story, most of the dwellings are pretty, pastel coloured houses or bungalows dotted around the hills. There are apartment blocks, but they’re relatively small and spread out.
Needless to say the capital is easily walkable and done in a day with ease. There’s a smashing hike to be had along the adjoining coast with snow capped mountains in the near distance. You wont find art galleries and museums proliferating like you would in London, Paris or Rome, the city obviously just doesn’t have the scale to accommodate them. But the cathedral that dominates the skyline affords fantastic views and there are sufficient eateries and pubs to keep a person occupied. The revolving restaurant, The Pearl, on the outskirts of the city is particularly interesting if a little expensive.There’s a large lake right in the centre of Reykjavik and this is a lovely spot for a picnic and a bit of bird watching if you’ve brought your binoculars.
Attractive though the capital is though, we weren’t here this time to languish within its borders. We’ve visited before and intended to venture further out this time. Beyond the next ‘big’ town up, Selfoss. Most of Iceland is easily accessible via the ring road and if you hire a car you can find your own way to some marvellous attractions.
Hveragerdi is one of the most interesting towns in Iceland. It’s an easy half hour, 25 mile, drive from the capital or a little further from the airport. Geothermal activity abounds here and you can see plumes of steam on the hillside as you approach. One of the restaurants actually uses the steam to cook its food and this was the location of the hot river we bathed in. It’s odd to put your hand into a small waterfall and feel the soothing warmth when snow lies on the banks feet away. There’s a slightly bigger waterfall not far off the centre of town where we enjoyed a sandwich and coffee whilst watching Salmon leap. This fall is fairly near to the local baths, an Olympic sized pool with huge hot tubs nearby. Such facilities are everywhere on the island, a great extra for us.
We stayed at Hotel Hlid which is a mile out of town and, being so isolated, would be a fantastic spot for those who come to view the Northern Lights. The hotel is very basic, like many in Iceland, but the breakfast, and food in general was superb. There’s a hot tub at the end of the single story building and every room has a decent vista, the next nearest building is possibly half a mile away and not of great stature. An ideal base for those who want peace and quiet and can occupy themselves on the evening.
The ring road is minutes away and you’re swiftly on your way for some fantastic sight-seeing. Look away now if you aren’t a lover of cascades, torrents and all things water and gravity!
There’s a great supermarket in Hveragerdi (considering how sparsely populated the town is), ideal for stocking up if you decide to eat al fresco. If you want to eat in, Selfoss is the best place to do so when you’re on the ring road. It’s much cheaper than the capital and the diners are ridiculously easy to find. They’re either right by the bridge as you cross the river coming into town or they’re on the main road as you exit the town. Hot dogs are ubiquitous in Iceland, they’re available in nearly all filling stations along with piping hot coffee. Testy, cheap and convenient.There’s a fast food outlet just under the bridge and a pizza joint a few yards away. An American style diner is several hundred yards up the road serving enormous portions at very reasonable prices. It’s difficult to find cheap food in Iceland, Selfoss manages it. The river is wide and very fast flowing here, picnic benches make it an ideal spot to relax for twenty minutes or so. Don’t look for a waterfall mind, although Foss normally signifies one, it seems to be a bit misleading in this case.
The first waterfall we come to is Urridafoss. It’s just off the ring road but you have to keep your eyes peeled for the sign. If you’ve ever been to Richmond in North Yorks, this fall is similar. Similar but MUCH bigger. It’s not a high fall, but it’s extremely wide and powerful, pouring over rock formations in a myriad of directions. In fact over the course of year it’s said more water passes its rim than any other fall in Iceland. It was certainly awe inspiring and incredibly noisy when we visited and apparently it’s even more worth seeing when the ice dams further upstream burst and bergs are present in the water. A great introduction to what was to follow.
A short detour from the ring road is a very interesting torrent. Gluggafoss, also known as Window Falls. Depending on the history of the falls it’s either being invisible, flowing through a vertical tunnel, or there’s been an opportunity to see it through windows caused by erosion of the soft rock. It’s an inverted trident shape, i.e. It starts off as a single and narrow gusher before widening into quite a broad fall. Suffice to say the day we were there numerous lensmen and artists were capturing its glory.
An easy half hours drive and we came to a collection of waterfalls, two of which were simply superb. Seljalandfoss drops about 200 feet but it isn’t its height that makes it one of the most photographed attractions in Iceland. You can walk right the way round the torrent and snap the fall from all angles. A deep and large cave lies behind Seljalandfoss and it’s a superb vantage point to take pictures. About four hundred yards away, and with another couple of reasonably impressive gushers in between, lies a truly unique waterfall;Gljufurarfoss is like something out of Jurassic Park. Misty, atmospheric, situated in a moss covered open ‘cave, accessed through a granite passageway. Magical. It’s astonishing to see how little water flows out from the stream fed by this fall, it’s height and location make it truly impressive in my eyes.
Skogafoss is next up and this is most peoples idea of a stereotypical fall. A huge rectangle of water that regularly features in the world’s top ten. It’s a simple straightforward drop but its sheer size makes it worth the journey. Especially as a set of steps make it viewable from several different angles and heights. Quite often there’s a rainbow visible in the immense spray and this makes it a photographer’s dream.
All of the above falls (Gljufurarfoss only partly) are very close to the circular road and accessible to the walking impaired.
The famous black beach of Vik lies a further half hour away and then the final stop on the ring road, Jokulsarlon, for this part of our adventure. By now you are a considerable distance from base camp and you should only come this far if a) you are doing it at the height of Summer when days are extremely long or b) you are confident of driving back in the dark. I was neither but I just couldn’t resist. I’d been told Iceberg Lagoon was one of natures wonders, certainly one of the lesser explored ones, and I wasn’t disappointed. The sight of the translucent blue bergs floating in the lake and lying on the beach, contrasting with the black sand was simply magical. A spectacle I will never forget. Another unique Icelandic experience that made the long trek back to Hveragerdi well worth the sacrifice and bloodshot eyes.
King of all Iceland’s magnificent waterfalls, Gullfoss, is a story for another time. As are the fantastic geysers, beautiful spas mentioned earlier and the prodigious glaciers. I hope I’ll be writing another review in the not-too-distant future. I simply can’t wait to get back.