Travels in the North

Musings on arctic holidays

Back to Iceland

I’m off on holiday to Iceland tomorrow, in what will be my third visit to the island. Can’t wait.

I land mid afternoon tomorrow, and my vague itinerary is to spend tomorrow afternoon exploring the Reykjanes peninsula, which I haven’t seen before (sort of an obligatory stop at the Blue Lagoon of course) then spend the night in Hafnarfjörður, again somewhere I’ve not been.

Early Tuesday morning I’ll embark on a whistlestop trip round the ring road, much of the South coast I haven’t seen before and I’m also going to stop in Húsavík, somewhere else I’ve not been to but want to see.

Should be quite a trip!

Iceland: In from the cold

Interesting program from the BBC World Service about how Iceland has recovered from the economic crash in 2008.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00y2wsy/Global_Business_Iceland_In_From_the_Cold_%281%29/

Talks about the mistakes in trying to position Iceland as a centre for finance, but then how they’ve recovered with a diversifying economy.

Reliving an old trip – 29th June 2006 – Golden Circle Tour

My Lonely Planet guide book was very disparaging of the Golden Circle Tour, saying you spent more time in expensive cafes than seeing the sights. However I figured you can’t really come to Iceland and not see its main attractions (such as Geysir and Gullfoss), and as far as I was concerned it was as good a way as any to see all this. The LP did say it was best to adopt a “mellow attitude”, which isn’t exactly something I find difficult to do so I reckoned I’d be ok.

I was picked up from the campsite at 8:20, and we were driven to a depot then got on our tour bus. I was initially surprised that our driver (Gúmmi) was doing all the talking, there wasn’t a seperate tour guide. He seemed to really know his stuff, and talked a lot about Reykjavik as we drove of the city through the outer suburbs. We drove past an industrial park Gúmmi said was built in the 70s outside of the city, by the 80s the building had caught up with it and now went far beyond it.

The first sight on the tour was Þingvellir national park (the Þ is pronounced ‘th’). We drove past a pipeline to a power station that provides about 50% of Reykjavik’s hot water – so well insulated it only loses about 1.8 degrees in the 20 miles or so it travels. We did a brief tour of the geothermal power plant, all seemed very modern. Then we moved on to the old parliament site, set on a picturesque valley on the fault line between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates (Iceland grows by about 2.5 metres a year due to these plates separating). Iceland is one of the oldest democracies in the world, and people used to gather at Þingvellir annually to discuss laws, then socialise (I suspect most just made the journey for this to be honest, politics isn’t everyone’s bag right?)

Then it was on to Gullfoss, a hugely impressive waterfall, although the million or so flies hovering around me tempered my enjoyment of it slightly. After this it was on to nearby Geysir, which is actually several geysirs spouting boiling water up in to the air every few minutes. Again, hugely impressive!

We also took in an explosion hole in the ground (whose name I forget), another nearby waterfall (again, the name escapes me) and finally Eden which seemed to be a garden centre-cum-tourist trap. Despite this final stop I have to say overall it was a fantastic tour, really made by our excellent driver.

Gúmmi also talked a little bit about Icelandic life which I found fascinating. In Iceland earnings up to 75000ISK are tax free, thereafter everyone pays a flat rate of 38.5%! VAT is also very high at 24.5%. It’s also an incredibly expensive country to live in and a lot of people work two or three jobs to make ends meet. [2012 edit – it’s interesting revisiting this and reading this, I wonder how this has changed since the economic crash? If things were tough in 2006 it must be fearsome now)

There was an interesting mix of people on my tour, a couple from Tennessee (with strong Southern US accents!), and a guy who was stationed at Keflavik in world war two. It was his first visit back to Iceland as part of an EU scheme for war veterans to go back to where they were stationed in the war. The biggest change he said was the number of roads, there were none when he was last he (at least, no tarmacked roads), but also less grass and vegetation he said.

Reliving an old trip – 28th June 2006 – Six hour bus ride to Reykjavik

I’ve always been a fan of journeys for their own sake. Flying excepted I guess, although even that isn’t so bad if you’re flying with a decent airline and get settled in with some wine and films. Anyway, as such I was actually quite looking forward to my six hour bus ride to Reykjavik, and it didn’t disappoint – a quiet and pleasant journey through rural Iceland stopping at such wonderfully exotic but actually very sleepy looking villages such as Blönduós, Hvammstangi and Borgarnes.

Bus to Reykjavik

Bus to Reykjavik

As we drove through the outer lieing of suburbs of Reykjavik I was struck at the sheer size of the place, I hadn’t seen anywhere remotely this size since leaving Aberdeen seventeen days ago. Reykjavik is a city constantly growing, as was evidenced by the number of cranes and construction I could see. Like the Faroe Islands, Iceland suffers from centralisation with people from small villages all over the country upping sticks to move to the big smoke (or perhaps more appropriately smoky bay, which is what Reykjavik translates as). 62% of the country live in the capital, a figure that is growing annually.

I was staying at the campsite which was a bit of a hike from the bus station and city centre. But it’s a nice site, very big and with decent looking facilities. Everything costs extra though, showers, laundry and cooking facilities, and that’s off a base rate of 800ISK per night.

I booked a Golden Circle tour for tomorrow, which takes in the quintessential sights all conviently placed within a few hours drive of Reykjavik. Then I walked back into town to explore.

The main shopping street Laugavegur seems nice, but expensive. I treated myself to a pub meal rather than cook back at the campsite, but stopped at the supermarket on the way back to stock up – I won’t be able to afford this every night!

Reliving an old trip – 27th June 2006 – Museums & Night out

Today is day seventeen of my three week trip in the North Atlantic, and having been to Shetland, the Faroes and now Iceland in that time it’s absolutely flown by (although I haven’t, I’ve got the ferry between all these places so far).

I start the day with a visit to Nonnahús, the home of Reverend Jón Sveinsson (better known as Nonni) who was an Icelandic children’s writer and very much a celebrated local hero by all accounts. The house was billed as a good example of a 19th century Icelandic dwelling, and it certainly had a historic feel to it, and very small bedrooms upstairs. I was struck by the amount of wood used – wasn’t this supposed to be a treeless country? I guess this is where all the wood went! Although I think a reasonable amount of driftwood was probably used to.

The entrance ticket to Nonnahús included entry to Minjasafnið á Akureyri, the Akureyri folk museum. This consisted of lots of old toys and musical instruments, and loads of photos.

I popped in at the library to use the internet and catch up with emails, quite an impressive library for a town of its size, bigger than the library in Torshavn.

In the evening I was keen to sample the Akureyri nightlife, but was left disappointed. I had a pint in Cafe Karoline, which only had about five other people in. Afterwards I tried and failed to find somewhere more lively. I think I’d read somewhere that Akureyri claims to have more strip clubs per capita than anywhere else in Europe (it had five I think) – not that I was particularly after this but it did imply there might be a decent nightlife but if there was I couldn’t find it.

Iceland VAT rate to treble

Bad news for travellers to Iceland this week, as it was announced that the VAT rate on hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions will be more than trebled from 7% to 25.5% from next May.

When I first visited Iceland in 2006 (pre economic crash) it was a very expensive, almost prohibitively so. I last went in 2010 and it was much cheaper – but by the sound of things with this announcement prices will rocket again.

I can understand things are tough in Iceland at the moment but do wonder if this will be counter productive, will people be put off travelling there because of the cost? I’m planning a trip there next month – certainly I’m glad to be getting in before the price rise.

Full story from the telegraph here http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/9533548/Iceland-to-treble-VAT-on-hotels.html

Reliving an old trip – 26th June 2006 – Akureyri

The one bus a day from Reykjahlíð on Lake Mývatn to Akureyri didn’t leave until 3:30, and I felt like I’d done everything with a reasonable walking/cycling distance so it meant I had a leisurely morning, and long lie in.

When I got on the bus there was one local and about five or six tourists on it. It’s amazing there’s a service at all really it must be subsidised quite heavily.

When the bus pulled into Akureyri it was a bit of a shock to the system to be back in an urban environment – although it’s still quite a modest sized town at around 17000 people, it’s the largest in Iceland outside the Reykjavik area, and the largest town I’d been in since leaving Aberdeen on the ferry about two weeks ago.

Akureyri

Akureyri

I had heard from a guy at the campsite in Reykjahlíð that the campsite in Akureyri was shut – but I checked with the tourist office and thankfully it had just reopened. It did have a slightly unfinished feel to it though – and no showers! Despite this is was packed, full of huge Icelandic off road vehicles, caravans and camper vans.

Church in Akureyri

Church in Akureyri

On my way into town I stopped at the botanical gardens – taking an avid interest in all things arctic I was keen to see the arctic flora of which they apparently had a lot – but was pretty disappointed. Just a modest collection of low lying shrubs with small green leaves. Still what exactly did I expect? It’s not really a region known for it’s flora afterall.

Akureyrarkirkja

Another church – Akureyrarkirkja

Akureyri town centre was pretty quiet – but then it was a Sunday night. A handful of tourist shops were open selling the usual postcards, t shirts, puffin keyrings and hugely expensive books on Iceland. A couple of pubs were also open but they all looked dead so I thought I’d leave the nightlife for tomorrow.

As the sun lowered it started to get quite cold, the daytime temperatures are around 20 degrees but at night it can get down to about 5 degrees or lower, which is in contrast to the Faroes where it seemed to remain fairly mild all night.

The Grindadráp

I’ve just seen the news that a group of pilot whales have become stranded in Anstruther in Fife. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-19455719

Reminds me of the grindadráp (literally “grind”), the traditional though perhaps controversial whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. The Faroese go out in boats and try and divert passing pods of whales into shallow fjords. As pilot whales always travel together you snare the whole pod, often thirty or fourty whales, in one go. Once in the fjord the whales are killed using a knife called a grindaknívur. The food from the hunt is distributed among the villagers, and in days gone by it was an essential source of meat for the islanders.

These days of course whaling is a far more contentious issue, but I guess as the pod who stranded themselves in Fife (without any human “encouragement”) show, this could be considered Darwinism in action.

Reliving an old trip – 25th June 2005 – Cycling to Krafla

With Mývatn’s notoriously limited local bus services, I decided to hire a bicycle for the day. I paid 1000ISK for the privilege, but what the hell, I’m on holiday.

Boiling mud at Hverarönð

Boiling mud at Hverarönð

My first stop was Hverarönð, a properly impressive series of steaming vents and boiling mud – far more active than anything I saw yesterday. The vents were absolutely feracious, and pretty loud to boot.

A steaming vent at Hverarönð

A steaming vent at Hverarönð

From here it was another few kilometres onto Krafla, a nearby Volcanic area. I was absolutely shattered when I got there – it was pretty hilly, and my legs just weren’t used to cycling having not been on a bike for the best part of a decade.

A lava field, the archetypal landscape in this part of East Iceland

A lava field, the archetypal landscape in this part of East Iceland

Krafla itself was pretty impressive, although mid way through my third day in Iceland I did wonder if I was already beginning to suffer from Volcano fatigue, once you’ve seen one steaming vent you’ve seen them all perhaps.

Krafla caldera

Krafla caldera

Keen to avoid the hills I’d encountered on the way here, I decided to take what I thought was a shortcut on a different route, signposted as 13.1km back to Mývatn compared to the 16km I’d cycled to get here. What I hadn’t realised was that a good 10km of this 13 was across lava fields, not exactly ideal cycling terrain and for most of it I was forced to carry my bike, cursing the thing and the 1000Kr I’d spent on hiring it. Only the final few kilometres were in any way easy going, and I passed an interesting looking industrial building which I later found out to be Bjarnarflag diatomite plant, a geothermal power station.

Bjarnarflag diatomite plant

Bjarnarflag diatomite plant

I got back to my campsite about 3:30, swearing I’d never ride a bike again. I had a relaxing afternoon writing a few postcards, and I bought my bus ticket to Akureyri tomorrow, although was disappoted to learn it didn’t leave until 3:30 tomorrow, giving me a full morning in Mývatn (lovely as it is I feel I’m done with it after two and bit days).

Krafla

Krafla

Reliving an old trip – 24th June 2005 – Hiking to Hverfjall

Spurred on by a Danish guy I met last night (at my campsite by Lake Mývatn), who assured me that a return trip walking to the Hverfjall crater could be done in five hours, I set off on the hike early.

A lavafield

A lavafield

It’s an interesting walk through lava fields of various ages, the newer ones are just bare rock, the older they are the more vegetation there is that’s started to appear, from mosses to shrubs. I went past a couple of geothermally heated pools, Grjótagjá and Stóragjá. I was expecting to see masses of steam but they were fairly modest affairs, whilst still impressively warm to the touch, not as visually spectacular as I’d imagined.

Hverfjall in the distance

Hverfjall in the distance

Sure enough about two hours until I reached the base of the Hverfjall crater, and I started the steep climb up. It’s undoubtedly an impressive sight, though the unofficial “Hikers Messageboard” of stones at the base of the crater some what takes away from the experience, it’s all “Gunnar was here” and “Sigmundur 2004”, after hours of not seeing anyone I felt right back at the heart of tourist central.

Grjótagjá

Grjótagjá

On the way back I took a detour via Dimmuborgir, a network of paths among a lava field full of striking and unusual shapes of lava.

Hverfjall

Hverfjall

At one point I walked through an lava arch at the top of a hill, to be met by an army of Japanese tourists the other side who all seemed to want to take a picture of me walking through the arch. “You are a hero” one of them told me – all a bit bizarre but quite amusing.

Hverfjall

Hverfjall

I made it back to the campsite almost exactly five hours after setting off – a decent hike and I felt like it’d been a good introduction to Iceland.

Dimmuborgir

Dimmuborgir

After resting up for a couple of hours I wandered up the road to the Mývatn Nature Baths, a Blue Lagoon style geothermal heated pool. It was stunning – so relaxing to be in a pool looking out over lava fields, with hardly anyone else around. Kind of like having a really big bath in the middle of nowhere.

Mývatn Nature Baths - Steamy

Mývatn Nature Baths – Steamy