Having decided to get away over Christmas our first thought had been to head off to sunnier climates and escape the British winter. But as Christmas 2014 approached we set off to a place that would only get colder and darker: Reykjavik, Iceland.
Iceland offers breathtaking landscapes and opportunities to tick of many of the items often found on bucket lists, including seeing the Northern Lights, Whale watching and visiting the world famous Blue Lagoon.
Walking round Reykjavik you are not short of things to gaze at, from Trolls to Churches, to the delightfully colourful houses and shops. The snowy setting seemed to, somewhat ironically, bring a feeling of warmth to the city and certainly emphasised the beauty in the surroundings. As we wandered onwards through the streets Hallgrímskirkja (Reykjavik ‘s most well known landmark) emerged in front of us.
At 73 meters tall is is the largest church in Iceland and its unusual architecture, based on the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape, is visible throughout the city. The church is also used as an observation tower and visitors can admire the view of Reykjavík and the surrounding mountains from its observation deck. With snow and ice gleaming in the midday sunshine there was something almost magical about Iceland, something that made you feel at ease. There was so much to see and do but it didn’t feel right to rush around this city but rather take it in at a leisurely pace and soak up the sensation of relaxation it gave.
Iceland’s magical aura was emphasised by the festive time of the year, with streets adorned with Christmas decorations and lights. A personal favourite of mine, were the 13 Yule Lads being projected on to buildings throughout the city. With names translating to the likes of the “Sausage Swiper” and the “Doorway Sniffer” these Yule Lads, from traditional Icelandic fables, are sons of the evil troll woman, Grýla, The Child Eater. Tradition has it that 13 nights before Christmas children will be visited by one of these yulemen and if they have been good they will be left a treat in the shoes they have left on the window sill. If not, then they will wake to find a raw potatoe in their shoe.
Returning from Hallgrímskirkja, via the charming water front Harpa concert hall, we made a stop at a bar that had been recommended to me as a whiskey lover: Dillon. Given my love for whiskey and rock music this couldn’t have been a more suitable recommendation. Located in downtown Reykjavik it offers over 100 different whiskeys from all over the world as well as live music. Opting for a local Icelandic whiskey and following that up with a rather pricey but delicious Japanese whiskey we continued our Icelandic adventure with a new fire in our bellies!
Similarly to no doubt the majority of visitors to Reykjavik, we had every intention of seeing the mysterious Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights). As we sat on the coach on the way to a remote farmhouse it dawn on us that we were not guaranteed to see this phenomenon and as the commentator emphasised how the conditions had to be just right to see them, we came to the realisation that it might take a few trips until we were lucky enough to see them in their full splendour.
As the host explained just how particular the conditions needed to be, with solar wind particles needing to collide with the Oxygen/Nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere, I drifted off, staring into the darkness of the coach window. After a while I started to see a small light in the distance. After a couple of hours of being told that it was unlikely we would see the sought after lights, I dismissed my initial thought that it could be the Northern Lights. As time passed however, they had danced and swayed into the most wonderful display of the Aurora Borealis.
As we arrived at the secluded farm and looked up into the clear sky, glimmering with thousand of stars, the performance above us was extraordinary. Green lights seem to sway above us in a movement I can only compare to the inside of a lava lamp, slowly wavering across the nights sky. It was freezing and having to occasionally take rest bite from the cold inside, we quickly returned to marvel at the routine above us. There’s a reason seeing the Northern Lights is on so many “thing to do before you die” lists. I’m not sure what it is exactly about them that makes it such a special experience, it’s hard to explain, so I’d say you must try and see them for yourself.
Another stop on the “must do” list was an early morning trip to the Blue Lagoon. We opted for the earliest coach leaving our hotel at around 7am on Christmas Eve and were some of the first that day to reach the lagoon. Located in a lava field, the geothermal spa is surrounded by volcanic rock and masses of snow but the clear waters are far from cold (37-39°C). The water is rich in minerals like silica and sulphur and silica mud masks are free for all bathers to enjoy.
We had opted from the “Comfort” package which included an algae mask, drink and towel. As we swam, with our face masks on and took our drinks from the swim-up bar there was something idyllic about the place. We had been the first into the water that day and swimming out to the far side of the spa, looking out across the lava fields, sipping sparkling wine, we were truly immersed in the moment. As clichéd as it sounds nothing else seems to matter and we just relaxed.
Reykjavik was a fascinating City and ignited my desire to see more of Iceland. The food and drink was on the expensive side but was delicious (controversially perhaps, the Mink Whale steak and Reindeer stew were divine). Heading home we had enjoyed many of the experiences the city had to offer, including the rather strange Icelandic Phallological Museum!
Definitely a country I’d like to see more of.
*This article was winner of “Trip Review of the Month” on independenttraveler.com, May 2016. See the published article here.*