Arriving in Iceland

 

For many years I have longed to go to Iceland – of all the places I wanted to travel, it has forever been top of the list, for a string of reasons which include a childhood fondness for Norse Mythology, and the adventures the Vikings had rampaging around Northern Europe, landing on Iceland and creating a new culture because they’d pretty much made themselves unwelcome elsewhere, and a dream of seeing the magical Northern Lights!

Now, I know that isn’t really how it works – you don’t rock up to Iceland in a silly pom-pom hat and just…see the Aurora Borealis – nobody is that lucky, and the chances of getting the right conditions and a clear sky are slim at best – but Iceland has so much more to offer that when the chance came for me to actually go, I threw myself at it, and set to with my notebooks and travel guides, putting together a list of adventures I wanted to have, places I wanted to visit, and experiences I wanted to share – with, of course, the hope that I’d at least see a glimpse of green dancing in the sky at some point.

Our adventures in Iceland were five nights and six days that felt – in all the right ways – like a lifetime of magic and adventure, and I’ll be sharing different aspects of it over a few blog posts in coming days. Nobody in the world ever has a holiday that looks or feels anything like the way a travel magazine or blog can make it seem – but I think my time in Iceland wasn’t just ‘Travel Blog Good’ it was PHENOMENAL, and we got ridiculously lucky with the way we got to experience the country.

It was my first time – but my lovely man has been a few times before, so was able to help me prepare with the right clothes (thermals, waterproof/windproof coat, a ridiculous pom-pom hat and some very good socks!) and to manage my expectations for the Aurora and seeing actual Vikings.

We set off, after some delay (thanks Storm Doris!) and the first excitement was that the Weasley Twins were on our flight out – and I did get a photo with JamesOrOliver Phelps (both of whom were LOVELY, and who only laughed at me a bit when I was the least cool person who has ever accosted them in an airport) but my hands were shaking so much that you can’t really tell who we are, so I shan’t bother sharing it here! My kids were as excited as I was when I told them, so at least they think I’m cool!

Our plans for the first night were to drive north up the coast to our first hotel – the Borealis Hotel, a ten minute drive from Thingvellir National Park, in preparation for starting there to do the Golden Circle (visiting the main highlights of the famous Icelandic natural springs, waterfalls, geyser and such!) before heading a little further north the following evening for a night in a fancy-schmancy hotel with our own private hot-tub under the stars.

That isn’t quite how that panned out!

The storm we’d left England through was heading north, and it hit Iceland as we arrived, with heavy snow the day we arrived, which made our journey to the Borealis Hotel a little nerve-wracking. The roads were covered in snow and ice, visibility was poor, our hire car was dainty, and the sat-nav was determined to send us up what the locals call ‘summer roads’ – narrow lanes that wind through mountains that aren’t passable in winter, and are in fact closed at all times apart from the height of summer!

After battling through the weather, reversing down a mountain with no visibility, getting briefly stuck in a snowdrift, and finally making it to our hotel three hours later than planned (only getting to the door thanks to a tractor with a plough clearing the way up the drive as we approached!) never have I been more pleased to see a welcoming light!

Once we got inside it was even more welcoming, and the glorious barmaid/receptionist told us that we’d missed dinner and the kitchen was closed, but that she could whip up some carbonara for us if we wanted…we wanted!

A (very) short while later, with a bowl of pasta and a beer inside us, we were too giddy to sit in the bar or head to our beds, so we decided to go outside and – as the clouds had momentarily cleared – do a bit of stargazing, take a couple of photos of the night sky, and play in the snow!

We literally stepped outside and walked a few metres to get behind the main building and as he set his camera up, I stood and looked at the sky. We knew we weren’t going to see the Aurora, because the weather was bad and the predictions for Aurora were pretty poor…only, when I looked up…

“Is that the thing? Am I imagining it or is that green? Because it looks green…”

OH MY GOD!

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Image copyright Alex Speed

Look at it! It’s right there! Just…in the sky!

So he panicked and took photos and got very excited, because it NEVER HAPPENS, and I stood like a useless moron and cried at the skies as the colours danced and span and twirled above us, all shades of green, and the camera caught the reds and every hue in between, and we leapt around like crazy people.

Within ten minutes the clouds had flooded back in, the snow had begun to flurry again, and the Aurora had disappeared – and just as we were ready to head inside, another couple came out with a camera and asked if we thought there was any chance the lights would appear tonight…

A couple of snow angels later we headed inside, drank more beer, then hung our wet clothes on radiators and fell into the most comfortable twin beds we’ve ever known (possibly simply because we were so exhausted!)

The following morning, we awoke to even more snow, and severe weather warnings. Our plans for the Golden Circle were off…and our chances of making it to our hotel for the evening, up in the mountains, with the sexy outdoor hot tub…nope. No way we could get close – the roads that way were closed all day because they were too dangerous in the storm – but there was a chance we might make it into Reykjavik if we left immediately. Well, immediately after the plough cleared the road to the hotel, where we were currently stranded…

 

There is only one ‘main’ road in Iceland – the 1 – it circles the country and though there are some good B roads, they aren’t cleared as often by the ploughs as the 1, and so our route of choice to Reykjavik was the 1 – only, as you see in the image above, our simple, 45 minute direct route was…well, not an option! The main road was closed – high winds made driving across the mountain route too dangerous. We spoke to the police manning this blockade and they said our only option to possibly make it to the city was the coastal road. We asked if it was safe. He said “well, it’s not closed yet!” and with that dubious reassurance, off we went!

You can see all the data here from the weather, road closures and wind warnings from the drive. We battled for hours through a blizzard trying to just get to somewhere we could stay – ideally Reykjavik, but as the day wore on and we seemed to be driving for hours without getting anywhere, we just wanted to be somewhere safe.

We ended up making it to a small harbour town on the south coast called Grindavik. Here we were told that every road was closed, that they might open in the early evening if the storm blew over as it was expected to, but that the next few hours were too wild and dangerous for people to be out in.

We found a tiny, harbour side café where we could hole up for some food and warmth while we waited to see what would happen – and were a little thrilled (once we’d managed to battle from the car to get inside, the wind was so strong I could barely take a step, and his glasses were blown straight off his head and the length of the street before landing, chipped, in a snowdrift!) to find absolutely delicious coffee, and the tastiest lobster soup we’ve ever had – salty, packed with chunky lobster pieces, served with fresh bread and bottomless refills!

We spend a lovely few hours in our safe haven – I wrote in my travel journal and filled up on the soup and coffee, enjoying the sense of adventure and uncertainty. My poor chap enjoyed it a little less as he kept tabs on the weather and road updates and tried to find somewhere we could stay, since we weren’t getting to the hotel we had booked, but with all flights grounded and all roads closed, Reykjavik was full and it took a lot of searching and worrying before we managed to book the last room available in the entire city (in a hotel I won’t link to, because though it was beautiful we got overcharged because of the storm, and had no sleep because the staff clattered around in the kitchen – which was next to our room – until well past midnight and from 5am!)

Eventually, as evening began to fall, the roads were opened between Grindavik and Reykjavik – so we jumped into the car and raced (carefully crawled) up the now surprisingly clear road to the city – and once we’d parked and confirmed we had a bed for the night, we found a safe place to sit and enjoy a well deserved beer!

Our first 24 hours in Iceland weren’t anything like we expected – but what an adventure, what a sense of magic and wonder, what an incredible range of emotions and experiences, and thank goodness for beer and brennivin! (That’s the shot you see above; I can’t really describe what it tastes of, but it’s the Icelandic schnapps that certainly warms you after you get lost in the snow!)