Having made it to Reykjavik with only 2 days to spare before our flight to Ireland, I decided that the easiest way to do the three things we really wanted to do (try to see the northern lights, visit a natural hot spring and see the famous geyser Strokkur that shoots hot water 30 metres into the air) was to do a couple of tours. I don’t normally like tours, preferring the independence of hiring a car and doing our own thing, but in the icy conditions and with such short time, it was a good call.
Reykjavik itself seemed a nice quirky city, with a glorious view over to the mountains from the front, lots of cosy cafes and restaurants, and a big frozen pond that all the kids were skating and skidding on.
The first tour we did was entitled ‘Warm baths and cool lights’, and combined an evening visit to the thermal pools at the ‘secret lagoon’ with a northern lights search.
The pools were built over a geothermal area, that also heated the entire village and provided enough heat to bake bread in the ground. I tried some and it was very tasty – they make the dough then bury it in iron pots underground, and it bakes from the heat. It reminded me of a cross between a Korean steamed bun and ordinary bread, and was definitely delicious.
There were four pools of different (but all hot) temperatures and given that it was minus 8, it was quite an experience to wallow in them, looking up at perfectly clear skies with millions of stars overhead. There were also saunas, but I’m not a fan of saunas, so we focused on the pools.
There was a non-heated lake that you could throw yourself into, and after egging each other on myself and an Irish woman built up the courage to try it. We had to walk through the snow and down some icy steps to get into the lake, and there were icicles hanging from the rails by the steps to get it. I couldn’t actually feel my feet by the time we got to the lake, and it certainly wasn’t a situation for dithering, so we threw ourselves in, did a few strokes, then raced back out and into the nearest warm pool. I can’t say it was enjoyable, but it did give us some major bragging rights for the rest of the evening. Lauren didn’t fancy it as you couldn’t see the bottom of the lake, but she did go in as far as her ankles, which was further than most adults.
After the hot springs we headed out into the national park to get away from ambient light and look for the northern lights. It was incredibly cold parked up halfway up a mountainside, and for a long time nothing happened. A number of people gave up and went back to the bus. Gradually however, on the northern horizon, a greyish light appeared – if you weren’t told you’d have thought it was a cloud. It gradually got brighter and turned a greyish green, and at its strongest you could see it moving about and swirling a bit like mist, but it was only when looking at photos taken with a long exposure that you could really see the vivid green. I was glad I’d brought a decent camera, although the guy with the tripod got the best pics as he could have exposures of 25 seconds. We were thrilled to have seen them, although it was a fairly weak sighting compared to some.
Eventually they faded and we headed back to Reykjavik. We didn’t get back to the hostel until nearly one o clock, and I needed to get our stuff organized for an early start the next day. Lauren was supposed to be sleeping but she suddenly piped up: “mummy, I can see the northern lights again”. I was kind of skeptical and annoyed, thinking she was just avoiding going to sleep, but sure enough, despite everyone telling us it was essential to get out of town and away from ambient light, the strongest sighting we had was from our bedroom! They were ‘properly green’ seen with the naked eye, and Lauren was justifiably happy to have spotted it herself. I didn’t really have the camera on the right setting, but you can see how vivid they were from the photo below.
The next day we joined a ‘golden circle’ tour, hitting the highlights of Thingveller national park, the geothermal area where the original geyser can be found (after which all other geysers are named) and where the strokkur geyser still erupts every few minutes, and the gulfoss waterfall. We also crossed from the American tectonic plate to the Eurasian one, crossing a wide chasm where they are moving apart from each other at a few cm per year. Iceland is like one big, fun, geography lesson. It was minus ten, but a glorious sunny day (for the few hours of daylight, anyway!).
The scenery en route and at each of these places was stunning, including some pretty decent views of the volcano that erupted a few years back causing chaos in European airspace. I can’t really do the scenery justice with words, so check out the photos below.
Next up: Ireland and lots of catching up with friends!