|Iceland Trip 3/11/14 - 5/11/14|
Flying Birthday Visit
I'd been to Iceland for 4 days once before, in July 2001. I wasn't sure whether going in late autumn would be such a cunning idea, given the length of the days and what I assumed would be really bad weather. Mind you, it had rained pretty much the whole time in July and hit a maximum of 13C AND it was Ste's birthday on 4 November and you can't really change when that falls. He might be a queen, he's not the Queen, so doesn't get two birthdays. So, off we went just for 2 nights, just literally to go somewhere cool (perhaps in both senses) to celebrate his 22nd.
I wanted everything to be really special, so we had valet parking (oooh get us) and then continued proceedings with free food and drink in the Manchester airport business lounge. It was Ste's first visit to one, and one he made the most of. I think he managed to pack away four bacon rolls, which is probably a good proportion of some poor pig's entire leg. We flew Icelandair, which was really calm, classy and lovely. I was surprised it was only a 2.5 hour flight, given we started a bit further north than London to start with.
|Free food \o/ Free Food \o/|
We arrived about 3pm to the most utterly brilliant blue skies and sunshine imaginable. Iceland's landscape is like no other. There are volcanoes, lava fields, the dramatic coast line, and miles and miles of unspoilt nothing. It was spectacular to see it all so clearly.
I'd looked into packages with the various excursions I wanted to do included, but decided a hire car and doing it ourselves would be much more flexible, and more pleasant than hanging around for transfer buses etc. So we picked up our little VW Polo and our first stop was the Blue Lagoon, which is between Keflavik airport and the capital Reykjavik, just under an hour away. The first thing I checked was for the snowflake symbol on the tyres: yup, it has snow tyres and they were going to come in handy quite unexpectedly the following day.
The Blue Lagoon is a dream location. It's a large man-made pool with water from the neighbouring geothermal plant, and it's surrounded by blackened lava fields. The water comes out of the ground at absurdly high temperatures and pressures, but by the time it reaches the pool it's "only" around 39C. That is the most delightful temperature on a day where it's 2C, as it was for us. There's a typically beautiful Nordic glass, wood and steel complex where you get changed, can shower and eat... and then step straight into the milky blue water of the lagoon. You can see the sun going down behind Ste and the steam coming off the water. Heaven.
|Blue Lagoon Posterboy!|
People advised me on Twitter that the "in water massage" couldn't be missed, so I thought what the heck, it's his birthday and we've come all this way. So I booked us each one, not knowing what to expect. It's pretty much what it says on the label: you lie on a table in the water for the first part, then they transfer you to a float while they massage your head, shoulders and face. You're wrapped in a warm towel the whole time, and when you're on your back it feels like you're in amniotic fluid. You finish up in some kind of trance: it's an amazing, amazing experience.
|Ste back in the womb|
|SMILE: It's Halloween!|
By the time we headed on to the hotel to check in the temperature was down to about -2C. The roads are smooth, straight and easy to drive on and we checked in about 8.30pm. We stayed at the Hilton Nordica, which I can't praise more highly. Hiltons can be a bit [a lot] characterless and bland, but this one had some real Nordic design flair about it, including the stunning 11 storey central spiral staircase. They upgraded us to a gorgeous junior suite too, which is always guaranteed to get me to write a nice review on Tripadvisor. Yes, I am that cheap/easy.
|Not often you feel the need to photo a hotel staircase|
An added bonus for us of the Hilton for me was the unexpected surprise of finding that Reykjavik's best vegetarian restaurant is literally a minute away, across the road. It's called Glo and serves huge, healthy, organic, delicious veggie meals in a really stylish environment. I hate veggie restaurants that look like grotty student dives where a free helping of food poisoning comes with every meal, so this was bliss.
Even better there was a gaggle of chatty lesbians having supper, which added to the atmosphere. Iceland is famously LGBT friendly (they had the first out lesbian PM, social democrat Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir back in 2009) and it's worth just noting that we didn't have a moment's awkwardness checking into the hotel or at any other time in the visit. In fact, the only time we've had any awkwardness anywhere about being a same sex couple was in a supposed trendy urban hotel in Shoreditch (the Hoxton: yeah you deserve to be named and shamed, fuck you) and in a tea rooms in North Wales where presumably if my partner had been a sheep all would have been fine.
We pottled down to the centre of Reykjavik after supper for a walk round. Almost 2/3 of the country's 325,000 inhabitants live in and around the capital, but it feels like a small, cosy, typically Nordic town. The houses are brightly painted, often with metal or wooden sides, it's prosperous, tidy and safe. 90% of all buildings in Iceland are heated by free, endlessly renewable geothermal power, so the air is clean. Although the country took a real battering during the 2008 economic crisis, GDP per capita is still $50,000 and unemployment is under 4.5%.
|Hallgrímskirkja. Try saying that when you're drunk.|
My favourite building here is the parliament building: the Alþingi. It's the world's oldest parliament, dating back to 930, but the building it's located in looks like a British provincial town hall. It's so wonderfully understated. I started boring Ste about the linguistic meaning ("All" means everything, or great in old Germanic, and a "thing" is a meeting) but the sub-zero temperatures were making his eyes glaze over. I think it was the temperature, anyway. The Hallgrímskirkja Church towers over the capital from every angle and is a futuristic 1930s art-deco design. It's looks all very Gotham City. Apart from that, Reykjavik is charming enough, but to be frank it's not a reason for visiting the country.
I woke Ste up at 6.30am, which is always guaranteed to go down well. You can see how full of beans and the joys of life he is in the photo below. The point of the card is that it contained his surprise: "This card entitles the lucky birthday boy to a 1.5 hour Husky Ride Experience with Dog Sledding Iceland. Begins at 10.00am on 4 November 2014. Bring gloves, a coat and a camera!" The cuddly husky that accompanied the card is the one I photographed for the front a few weeks before and ordered from Moonpig. We later christened him "Grauman" after the cutest, naughtiest, husky in the pack that pulled our sleigh. He had to wear a cone when he wasn't out working, to stop him from licking his balls, which is always endearing.
|It's awake! Birthday Boy :-)|
The husky ride was 1.5 hours drive from the hotel, in the south of Iceland. It was still pitch black until well past 9am, which is interesting. One of the main arguments against Britain going onto double-summer time (i.e. being in the same time zone as almost all the rest of the EU) is that the Scots don't want it to be dark in the morning in the winter. Iceland is far further north than Scotland, and by rights should be an hour behind us because of their geographic position. Instead they've chosen to be in the same time zone as Britain, so that it stays lighter later in the evening. The flipside of that is it's dark in the mornings, and they're apparently happy with this. Today, for example, sunrise was at 10.40am in Reykjavik and sunset was at 3.52pm. If I had the choice I'd do just the same. Sunrise in London today would be at 8.42am and sunset at 4.56pm, if we did the same thing Iceland does.
So after a nice long hotel breakfast we drove off, in the dark, and arrived at the isolated farm where the huskies spend their time when they're not up on a glacier for the summer season, or on lower snow covered land in the winter. This meant it was a ride on a sleigh with wheels, over dry land. It was pretty much the same experience (particularly the "cold factor" given the 1C temperature and rain) and we had 8 dogs pulling us. Working in those temperatures for them is apparently the equivalent of us running a half marathon in the tropics: they can't be pushed too hard as it really is warm for them.
They're technically Greenlandic Dogs, rather than Siberian Huskies. Each can pull up to 200kg on their own, so they made light weight of us, even despite breakfast and Ste's bacon rolls the day before. We were seated and the lovely musher stood behind us and talked to us throughout about the dogs. Here's a short video of the part of the proceedings! At the end we got to meet all the dogs in person, including one who had been the star of David Guetta/ Sia's mesmerising She Wolf video, filmed in Iceland. Apparently she's all full of herself now she's a movie star. Below is real life Grauman back in his run. Bless him: he was SO happy pulling the sleigh, and so miserable when he had his cone put back on his head.
|Poor Licky Balls :(|
We left the south coast behind as the rain really set in late morning. It was around 1.5 hours to our next stop, which was north and a lot higher geographically. I hadn't really thought that it would snow, but all of a sudden the rain changed to sleet, then a few kilometres on to thick white snowflakes. The roads are untreated, and this would cause utter chaos back home.
Everyone is driving on winter tyres though (including us, remember?!) and I was amazed at how the little Volkswagen handled with them. Going up hills or around roundabouts, all through fresh snow, proved to be no issue whatsoever. The scenery became beyond beautiful, especially with the snow. It was even better than I'd remembered it from my trip before in 2001.
In the meantime Ste decided to play with his little geezer in the car park, which I thought made quite a charming pic. The geysir "blows" about every 5-8 minutes and there's always a massive "ooooh" from the assembled crowd, followed by a "did you get it?". The snowy sky doesn't do the scene justice: if you are here on a sunny day the photographs are absolutely stunning. That said, do click here on this link to me videoing the whole thing with Ste's obligatory "did you get it?" at the end.
|That guy is smoking!|
From Geysir it's only around half an hour to Gullfoss, the next surprise on the trip: Iceland's Golden Waterfall. It's the largest in Europe and apparently more impressive than Niagra. It's a three-staged staircase that ends up in a 100 foot drop and was magnificent in summer. In winter we just stood entranced for ages (well, between selfies anyway). I feel this is worthy of several photos for the album, so here we go:
|The main "Staircase". Look at the cold in my eyes!|
|To get an idea of scale, those are two people on the right|
|Double Selfie. No he isn't far taller than me. He's on a rock.|
|Our trusty little Volkswagen Polo hire car.|
It was now late afternoon, so we drove back through the Þingvellir National Park the 2.5 hours or so to Reykjavik for Ste's last birthday treat. The whole way beautiful view after beautiful view greeted us. It stopped snowing, the sun came out and then dusk arrived. We got back, had a hot shower, and then it was time for Icelandic Afternoon Tea at the Hilton.
|We do love a good afternoon tea!|
I obviously had the veggie version, but we're not convinced that Ste didn't have both reindeer and puffin for his. I particularly love the way Ste is mainly vegetarian when I'm not around, and then sensitively eats anything that breathes when I'm present. And SORRY KIDS, if Father Christmas doesn't make it this year with all your presents you'll know why. Ste ate Rudolph.
|Bye bye Rudolph, Donner and Blitzen|
With that it was time to snuggle up in the world's most comfortable hotel bed, watching TV, and getting an early night for our 8am flight back to Manchester the following day. Ste gave me the most incredibly perfect birthday in Beijing in April, so I did my best to return the favour.
Iceland, EEA and Schengen
After we returned the car and checked in at the airport, I mused how irritating it was that we had to go to a separate section of the airport reserved for US and UK flights. Yes, Iceland is in Schengen and has signed up to the EU free movement of people as part of its membership of the EEA. Anyone from within the EU can live and work here and claim its no doubt extremely generous social benefits if people were driven to do such things (they aren't).
I thought about all those things you hear about Britain being a special case (We're an island! Our space is limited and our resources would be put under unbearable strain! They would all come pouring over to take advantage of our benefits!) would seem to apply far more so to a socially minded country like Iceland with just 325,000 inhabitants. Yet you can take a flight from Warsaw or Budapest to Reykjavik with no passport check and there's no equivalent of entering Fortress Britain. In fact Iceland relies hugely on immigration to get the skills it requires and has no issue about the passportless European free travel zone that Schengen represents.
2014: A Year for Travel
This year was a phenomenal one for me with foreign travel. I keep a little record of where I've been to each year and a grand total (currently 65 countries visited ever). A "good year" averages about 14 countries a year for me. Three times I've been to 17 countries in a single year. 2014 was a new record: from China to New Zealand to Iceland to Australia to all round Europe, I visited 22 countries this year.
|World Domination Plans continue.. 65 countries and counting!|
It was the year in which I visited the land of the red earth, and the land of ice. And on that note I'll leave these two beautiful images of similarly sized massive lumps of rock that sum up my 2014 travels for me. The first photo was at Ayer's Rock (Uluru) in Australia in February. It was 40C. The second was at the Þingvellir National Park in Iceland in November. It was -2C. What a contrast. The world holds so many treasures: here's to much more exploration in the coming years!