Deciding what I wanted for my 16th birthday was a struggle for me. It was getting closer and closer to the date, yet whenever I was asked what I wanted I had no answer. I’m not one for unnecessary spending and I already had everything I needed, so I didn’t really want to ask for ‘stuff. What would I have needed? Clothes? I have enough. A phone? My old one worked fine. Books? While I agree you can never have too many, I already had about 6 on my shelves to read. Having decided I didn’t want any more stuff, next time my parents asked what I wanted I decided to ask for a memory. I wasn’t after anything in particular: a theatre trip, theme park adventure or holiday would all have been welcome as I knew no matter what I did I wouldn’t forget it.
It turns out what I did get for my birthday was a trip to Iceland with my dad and three tours, which you can read about here. A couple of months and lots of warm clothing later and it was finally time to go to Reykjavik where we would hopefully see the Northern Lights, whales and the geysers.
We left early on the Monday and spent the entire day travelling, not getting to our hotel until around 20:30pm (there is no time difference between the UK and Iceland), so we were both quite tired. We wanted to be exploring the city centre the next day so after a skype call to home we went to bed, ready for the adventures to really begin.
On Tuesday we had a tour booked to see the Northern Lights, but since this wasn’t until the evening we decided to spend a few hours in the city centre, explore a little, have lunch and try to find a shop to stock up on the essentials. We got a cab to the centre which took about 10 minutes, and since we didn’t really know where anything was at this point we decided to have a wander with no particular destination in mind. Despite the fact it was gone 10am it was only just beginning to get light and the high-street we were walking up was quite empty.
Another thing: it was cold. I mean, when you’re travelling to somewhere like Iceland you don’t expect it to be warm and in the run up to the trip I had been checking the forecast every day, but I was still unprepared for exactly how cold it was. It became apparent that the two shirts, jeans (with tights underneath), two pairs of thick socks, hat, gloves and jumper as well as a single thick coat would not be sufficient. Every time we left the hotel after that, I made sure I had at least two jumpers and two coats on as well the layered up shirts and trousers. The funny thing is that despite having so many layers I could barely bend my joints, I was still freezing!
Anyway, we had a walk down the high-street before taking a side road down to walk beside the sea front in order to find the Solfar (Sun Voyager).
Back in 1986, a competition was held for a new outdoor sculpture to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Reykjavik and a smaller aluminium model was presented and chosen. It was officially unveiled on Sæbraut on 18th August 1990, the birthday of the city. It was surprising to find out that it was not a Viking ship as we originally thought, but rather an ode to the sun in the form of a dreamboat.
Being typical tourists, we snapped a couple of photos in front of it and continued on the walk, this time heading in the direction of Hallgrímskirkja, meaning Church of Hallgrímur.
After a short walk we eventually did reach Hallgrímskirkja, right as the bells began to chime. It was absolutely huge – both in height and length. At 244ft, it is the tallest church in Iceland and the sixth largest architectural structure in the country. Construction began 1945 and it was completed in 1986. You can actually go up the tower (thankfully the lift takes you a majority of the way up) and view the city from there, at an extremely reasonable price that works out to be approximately £5 for adults or less than a pound for children up to the age of 14. We didn’t go into the tower on the Tuesday, but returned on the Friday instead where we enjoyed viewing the entire city. While up there we also located the lake we wanted to visit and worked out the route to take to get there, which was helpful!
We returned to the hotel for a few hours not long after and soon it was time to get ready to go on the Northern Lights Tour. With a tour booked for 19.30pm, a coach came by to pick us up about half an hour before that. The guide explained to everyone that since the Lights were an act of nature, they couldn’t guarantee a sighting but would try their best. If we were unsuccessful that night, we could rebook easily at no extra charge. The tour guide was extremely informative, giving everything from information about the Northern Lights to photography advice (although he stressed, several times, that he was not a professional and we should follow the advice ‘at our own risk). They drove us out to a remote field, far away from the city and all the artificial lights that it brings with it. Unfortunately we were unable to see the display due to cloudy conditions, despite driving to two or three different areas. It was disappointing for sure, but as the guide said, you can’t predict nature. When we got back to the hotel we rescheduled for Friday night, the only night that we were free.
We had another tour booked for Wednesday, this time a whale-watching one. We got a coach ride to the harbour and were once again reminded that the whales we would see were wild and not trained in the slightest so once again there was no guarantee of any sightings.
Things appeared to be going well at the beginning when we sailed quite far out and managed to catch a glimpse of a whale. It lasted mere seconds, not long enough to have a decent photo taken of it, but long enough that you knew it was really there and not a trick of the light. There were a couple more instances like this but after an hour and a half or so of lightning quick sightings, we were out of luck.
About halfway or two thirds of the way through the three hour tour I began to feel slightly woozy but thought it was all in my head. The longest boat trip I had taken was the twenty minute trip from the mainland to Venice, quite different from the rough waters in Iceland. Dad and I went indoors for a bit to escape the biting cold, buying some warm drinks and a couple of cheese toasties. It wasn’t long after that that I realised eating was probably a mistake and that woozy feeling I had earlier was definitely not in my head. Luckily there are strategically placed vomit bags for such an occurrence, which I was grateful for.
If I had to give advice to anyone who is thinking of travelling to Iceland in the hopes of seeing the whales, it would be go during the summer as that’s when viewing wildlife is at its best. Of course, it’s still not promised and you definitely won’t see the Northern Lights due to lack of darkness, but your chances of seeing the whales are higher. I would also suggest taking the sea sickness medication that they offer you at the beginning of the trip even if you don’t know if you get sea sick or not – just in case.
In spite of our bad luck the previous two days when it came to nature tours, we set of on our Golden Circle tour on Thursday extremely optimistic. Unless something drastic should happen such as the waterfall freezing or geysers deciding they didn’t want to erupt anymore, we knew we would see something great.
We left early in the day before the sun had fully risen and were taken to Þingvellir National Park, where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia split and drift apart.
Watching the sun rise over the mountains and lake was mesmerising and took your mind off of the cold weather. After about half an hour there, we got back in the coach and were driven to Fridheimar.
Here we saw how they use geothermal heat to grow cucumber and four different types of tomatoes all year round.
After another short drive we came to the geyser area where we would stay for two hours to have lunch and a look around.
As the eruptions of the geysers are regular but still unpredictable, we were stood around for a long time with all of our cameras and camcorders set up and ready for the display.
Most of the times they erupted they would powerfully burst high into the sky…
Other times there would be smaller ones that only blew up a few feet before going in the direction of the wind.
Time passed quickly and we soon had to get back onto the coach to make our way to Gullfoss waterfall, the final stop before heading back to Reykjavik.
Out of all of the landmarks that we saw not just on this particular tour, but during the whole trip, my favourite without a doubt would have to be Gullfoss waterfall.
We weren’t able to walk alongside it as it had been roped off due to ice, but the view that we had from the lower car park path was incredible.
Its name, Gullfoss, means Golden Falls. Gullfoss is not a popular tourist attraction simply because it’s nice to look at, but it also has a story behind it.
In the early 20th century it was owned by a farmer who was approached by an Englishman who wished to buy it off of him. Tómas Tómasson, the farmer, did not want to sell the waterfall but instead decided to lease it to the Englishman. Tómasson’s daughter Sigriður Tómasdóttir was unhappy with this and sought to have the contract annulled, even going so far as to threaten to throw herself in.
While her attempts were unsuccessful in court, the contract was disposed soon after due to lack of payments. The waterfall is now owned by the Icelandic government and is permanently protected.
Friday was our final full day in Iceland, and with no tours booked until the rescheduled Northern Lights tour in the evening we decided to go back to the city centre. Our plan for the day was to go to the top of the tower, do some souvenir shopping, have lunch and go to Tjörnin, a small lake situated by the city.
Although I said Gullfoss was my favourite place in Iceland, it was closely followed by Tjörnin. It was completely frozen over and while I was perfectly happy walking alongside it a majority of the way around, when I saw a group of people climb onto it and dash across to the other side I couldn’t resist having a (very short and very close to the safety of the pathway) walk on it.
With the traditional looking buildings in the background, a small group of ducks in the corner and a completely icy surface, the lake looked like something out of a fairy tale.
There are benches placed along the side of the lake and while most of them were bare, one of them had a statue sitting on it. At first I wasn’t sure whether it was a statue or one of those people who paint themselves silver and don’t move, but after lots of staring and a gentle tap I could confirm that it was a statue. It was of the late Icelandic writer Tómas Guðmundsson who is also known as Reykjavik’s poet.
If there is one thing that Icelanders think strongly about, it’s trolls, elves and other magical folklore. They believe strongly in them and there are many things that show this. For instance, when we first walked up one of the main streets we saw these two larger-than-life sized troll figures.
Later on during the week we learnt about Gryla, the evil child-eating troll and mother-of-13 who cooks up kids in her cauldron. Her 13 children, the Yule Lads, are the Icelandic equivalent of Santa Claus. On each of the 13 nights on the run up to Christmas they visit children and put either rewards or punishments into the shoes that they leave out, depending on their behaviour during the year. Some of the depictions behind the Yule Lads are that they are harmless pranksters – others are less child-friendly!
Towards the afternoon it began to snow, getting heavier and heavier as the day went on. While this was fantastic because it was the first proper snowfall we’d seen since being in Iceland, it meant that the Northern Lights tour had to be cancelled. This was somewhat disappointing but it was an example of how travelling doesn’t always work out exactly as you plan, and that’s okay. We had had a great trip overall and the experience was a brilliant one nonetheless. We’d seen some picturesque sights, made new memories and learnt some previously unknown information (such as the tourism industry being the biggest source of income in Iceland).
Maybe I’ll have more luck with the Northern Lights if I go to Norway.