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Circumilluminating Iceland part 1

Our tour guide actually apologised to us for the volcano being 'between eruptions' right now. (photo by The BBG)In March 2019, we put down a deposit on a cruise around the coast of Iceland, to be taken in the summer of 2020. Maybe you can guess how it went from there. Before we could get on the boat, the world was plunged into a pandemic, and we had to postpone the cruise until 2021. And when that date rolled around, we had to postpone it again to 2022. Happily, by 2022 we were all pretending that Covid was over, so we made it over to Iceland and had a terrific time.

But you remember what the travel companies were like back then – they were desperate for people to stop claiming refunds on their cancelled journeys, and postpone them to a later date instead. So they started bribing us. The long and the short of it is, for the last couple of years we’ve had several hundred quid’s worth of credit with Icelandair, which had to be used by late 2024.

So, five years after paying that deposit, we used it to spend Easter in Iceland this year. And you've probably got two questions relating to Icelandic natural phenomena at this point. To get one out of the way immediately: that puff of smoke you can see in an otherwise clear sky in this picture is the closest we got to the Grindavík volcano that's been in the news for a while now. As for your other question - did we see the Northern Lights? - it'll take a couple of days to get around to that.

A panda and a bat, apparently. (photo by The BBG)Monday 24th March

Having got ourselves alcoholically prepared at BrewDog Gatwick Airport, we board our Icelandair flight to Reykjavik. They’re an okay airline – after all, they get us to where we want to be on time, and they're paying for a large chunk of it – but I’ve had a grudge against them for a while because of the way they butcher their inflight movies. This time, I end up being disappointed because they claim to have The Suicide Squad (2021) on their programme, but it actually turns out to be the infinitely inferior Suicide Squad (2016) instead. Bullet Train is a suitably daft alternative, though even that turns out to have had some of its grungier bits excised.

Thanks to our 2022 visit, we know all the ins and outs of what to do once we land. A pre-booked Flybus to get us into central Reykjavik, and then the Klapp app for paying to get the bus to our hotel. We’re delighted to discover that the Storm Hotel is literally across the road from the Fosshotel Reykjavik, where we had an anxious few minutes last time round getting tested to see if we were Covid-free enough to board the ship. The Storm is quite ridiculously Scandinavian, all white walls and wooden floors and minimal storage space, and quite lovely with it: plus, it has a good old-fashioned breakfast buffet, something we missed out on when we spent most of 2022 in hostels or on ships.

We drop off our bags and head back into town before our 75 minute bus ticket runs out, because we have a small but perfectly formed plan for our first evening. We start at the OmNom chocolate factory and ice cream shop, where we pick up a few bars to go, and sit in for a couple of their ridiculously constructed ice creams. This ends up being kind of dessert before our dinner, at the Grandi Mathöll food hall – a slightly more downmarket version of the sort of thing we had at Hlemmur Matholl two years ago, a big room with multiple food stalls scattered around a communal seating area. A couple of fish dishes and some local beers courtesy of Trúnó do us just fine.

Obviously beer is - again - part of our agenda here while we’re in Iceland. There’s a brewery called Lady Brewery based in the Grandi area, which we know isn’t currently letting people visit, but we decide to try and track down anyway – only to find that the address we have for the place is an unmarked lockup with no signs of what’s going on in there. Still, at least we know of other places where you can buy beer, so we wrap up our day in Microbar. While we’re there, we get chatting to a guy who turns out to be a tour guide, and he insists that we’ve picked a pretty good week to see the Northern Lights. As if to prove him right, we notice a slight shimmer of green in the sky on our walk home. Is it the real thing? We’re not sure, so for now we’re saying yes.

We didn't make it into the Turf House: all we saw were people coming out of it complaining that Starmer doesn't even know what a woman is. (photo by The BBG)Tuesday 25th March

One of the nicest discoveries on our 2022 visit was Iceland’s open-air bathing culture, and we’ve got two destinations in our itinerary for the week. Neither of them is the Blue Lagoon, which is still under threat from the active volcano nearby. But there’s a perfectly fine substitute just half an hour out of town by bus, which you can get to without paying over the odds for an organised tour. This is the Sky Lagoon, which opened in 2021 and is currently profiting nicely from the Blue Lagoon’s closure.

The main part of it is a huge open-air geothermally heated pool, with its own bar attached, much like the Blue Lagoon. But the water’s a lot clearer here and the floors are a lot less slippery, which is handy for a pair of non-swimmers like us. It’s carefully designed to look at first glance like a naturally occurring lagoon, but gradually you discover hidden features like the rocks poking above the surface that turn out to be submerged seating. Best of all on a cold day, you’re either in the water or indoors, with no areas in between where you’re at the mercy of the elements. There’s a whole package of extra features available in the Turf House at the end of the pool – saunas and so on – but the basic pool package we have is just fine for a 90 minute chillout session. Be warned that the cheese and chocolate platter on offer at the restaurant is a bit odd, though.

Once we're back in central Reykjavik we find ourselves in the middle of a light snow flurry, and we're grateful that we didn't get that while we were outdoors in just swimming togs. We take shelter in the RVK brewery tap, one of our favourite watering holes from 2022. It’s more crowded on this Tuesday afternoon than it was on the Saturday when we were last there, and still has the same eclectic vinyl-only music policy, covering everything from Gary Numan to the Idles. From there we take a bus to a vegan burger joint called Junkyard, whose website promises an astonishing range of plant-based junk food. Our first surprise is that it’s actually a diner attached to a petrol station. The second surprise is that within the couple of weeks since we discovered it, the original owners have moved on and left it to some guys who've almost completely abandoned the vegan agenda. We have a reasonable enough dinner there, but it’s just gas station nosh now.

Ten minutes walk down the road from Junkyard is the Laugaras Bio, where two years ago we watched a Monoglot Movie Club film which featured two guys playing their stretched foreskins like bouzoukis. Our choice of unsubtitled Icelandic film this time around, Fullt hús, actually features both those actors in lead roles (you suspect the acting talent pool in this country is quite small), but the film is infinitely more acceptable. The first half sets up the situation of a struggling chamber music group sacking their cellist for a more famous and charismatic replacement, only to discover that he's actually a dick. There may be more context to consider than that, but if it was in the dialogue it wouldn't have registered with me. Not to worry, because the second half is one big set piece - the group's first concert with their new cellist - which bangs through an escalating series of great visual gags. Someone will eventually try to remake this in English, and rewrite it to give it some [hawk, spit] 'heart', not realising that the lack of heart is what makes this hilarious.

Heading back towards our hotel, we realise we’ve just got time for a quick nightcap beer, and we have it in the Beer Garden in the Fosshotel over the road, the one where we had those post-Covid-test celebration drinks two years ago. It turns out we’ve forgotten that the standard measure here is a gargantuan 40cl, which could be considered an issue when you’ve asked for one of Lady Brewery’s 10% ABV monsters.

Soundtrack to this picture: 'Aurora Borealis' by YlvisWednesday 26th March

So, that Northern Lights question. You've probably jumped to a conclusion based on this picture, but it's a little more complicated than that.

To maximise our chances of seeing them, we booked a two-day Northern Lights tour almost a year ago, and then structured the entire holiday around it. We booked it through Reykjavik Excursions, but it's actually run by Arctic Adventures, and neither company has been especially forthcoming about what we can expect. The tour group turns out to be smaller than we expected: there are no more than eight of us in a minibus, with a small trailer in tow to carry our luggage around.

During the daytime we're driven around the Snæfellsnes region by our guide, who provides a lugubrious commentary throughout. It’s very similar to the commentary we got on our Blue Lagoon bus trip two years ago: boasting about Iceland’s geothermal heating system, the history of their religions, and how they invented Thor long before Marvel did.

It's an enjoyable collection of sights, taking in Gerðuberg with its basalt columns, Ytri Tunga beach with its basking seals, Búðir with its rather cool black church, and Arnarstapi fishing village with its huge statue of the half-troll Bárður Snæfellsás. This is where we stop off for lunch at one of the local restaurants, discovering that the sand from Ytri Tunga is all over everyone’s feet and making us bad people to be inviting indoors.

The afternoon has an optional component, which most of the group goes for: a tour of the Vatnshellir lava cave, which involves the donning of hard hats and a torch on a lanyard. It’s a long way down (and, later on, up), descending 35 metres or so through dangerously pointy lava formations. Still, it’s all rather thrilling, particularly when we’re asked to turn off our torches to see just how much natural light makes its way down there, i.e. none. We wrap up the daytime tour with a trip to see the black sands at Djúpalónssandur beach, which makes our shoes even filthier but has the added attraction of the wreckage of a British trawler.

Eventually it starts to get dark, which is where things become a bit more sketchy. I think most of us had assumed that a Northern Lights tour would involve us being driven around in the minibus at night, and taken to the best spot for seeing them. Instead, we’re dropped off at the Arctic Adventures-owned Adventure Hotel Hellissandur and told to work it out from there. It’s not a great location: Hellissandur has a couple of nice features, notably Skipiđ - a sculpture that’s literally the prototype for Reykjavik’s Sun Voyager - and some fun murals. But the hotel is hella basic – we have to be driven into the next village along for dinner at Sker because their restaurant’s closed – and we’re still in a residential area with a fair bit of light pollution from houses, not to mention from the tallest above-ground structure in Western Europe.

We’ve been given three bits of advice by our guide – try to find somewhere dark, look to the north, and use a 4-5 second exposure for any pictures you try to take. This must be the first holiday where we've been advised to seek out badly-lit areas. Our first instinct is to head north from the hotel towards the sea, and we eventually find a handy bench to sit on that may or may not have been on someone’s private property: but that hasn’t given us what we want after an hour or so. Heading south, we venture into Snæfellsjökull National Park and stare into the sky for a bit. And at one point we turn around to face north again and… there they are. Stronger than the thing we may have seen on Monday, a very faint wavy green haze in the sky, but it’s there. I let off a few four-second exposure shots on my phone, and the results look a lot better than they did in real life – it turns out that every Northern Lights photo you’ve ever seen is based around a similar lie. Still, we’ve got some of our own now.

I have about twenty other pictures like this one if you're interested.Thursday 27th March

It strikes me the morning after that we missed a trick. The eight of us on the tour never really came together as a team, or tried to co-ordinate our searches with each other – we bumped into a couple of them coming in or out of the hotel during the night, but that was as far as it went. It’s possible that The BBG and I were the only ones who saw any lights worth mentioning: ominously, nobody else even talks about them for the whole of the second day of our tour.

The morning is another fast paced bus ride between the sights of the region, enlivened by The BBG spotting what she thinks might have been whales in the sea as we make our way along the coast. Our first spot is the spectacular Mount Kirkjufell, a bit of scenery apparently familiar to Game Of Thrones fans (where it’s known as Arrowhead Mountain), so we get to admire it from several different viewpoints. Nearby, we get a couple more waterfalls to add to our collection, the epic lava falls at Hraunfossar and the historically child-unfriendly 'children's falls' at Barnafoss (even more unfriendly in the current weather).

Lunch of sweet potato soup in the restaurant next to the waterfalls is followed by a drive to the historic site of Reykholt, which has a couple of interesting churches to look at – unfortunately, the old one is closed, and the new one has a Maundy Thursday service running which we’re not allowed to interrupt. Then it’s off for another optional component to the tour, as we get into hot water once again at the Krauma geothermal baths. Unlike your lagoons of Blue and Sky, this is more like a fancy version of the municipal baths you find in most Icelandic towns: half a dozen pools in the open air, with water of differing degrees of hotness or bloody coldness, all sourced from the nearby eggy-smelling Deildartunguhver hot spring. Walking between the pools while only wearing swimming togs is the hardest part of the whole process, but there are a few additional features that help you recover from that – a relaxation room, a sauna, and a fabulous infra-red room that appears to warm you from the inside out.

From there, it’s back to Reykjavik just in time for tea. The tour bus drops us off outside the Hallgrimskirkja, which is handy for the hotel where we’ll be spending the second half of our trip. To be documented in the second half of this writeup, inevitably.


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