For many years we had planned to celebrate my 50th birthday in
Jordan but with recent events in the Gulf, we decided there was too much risk of
last-minute changes to our plans and so went for somewhere completely different
- Iceland. Having found our Voyages Jules Verne trip to China very well
organised, we chose to travel with them again and set off on a Friday
afternoon, returning on Tuesday night. We flew Icelandair, arriving at a
deserted airport at midnight. There was snow everywhere. Our local rep,
Bergestein, from GJ Travel, met us and we were soon at our hotel, the Radisson
SAS Saga. It seemed very nice, large and roomy and already decorated for
Christmas. A couple of things surprised me - the bed had 2 single duvets rather
than 1 large one, and there was no bath, which was a shame as I'd brought my
bath pillow with me. I later found that the hot water comes from a geothermal
source and is rather sulphurous so I guess you wouldn't want to hang around in a
bath for long!
My birthday and we were up quite early ready for our Golden
Circle trip at 10am, which was included in the price of the holiday. It was still quite dark at 9am with sunrise being at around
10.30. That did feel strange. We started at the Thingvellir National Park,
which contains the old Viking Parliament of Albingi, taking a walk all around.
What an incredible place. I was glad of my thermal undies, hastily purchased on
the day of departure when I saw the temperatures were due to dip well below
freezing point. At one point the temperature was the equivalent of -20°C,
allowing for the wind-chill factor bit apart from my face, I stayed really warm.
Then we moved on to Gullfoss, Iceland's mightiest waterfall. This was an even
more amazing sight, absolutely beautiful, with much of it frozen and the
waterfall gushing down in 2 sections. The sun came out briefly and it was truly
a magical moment.
Next came a visit to the hot springs at Geysir and we saw Stokkur erupting -
this geyser erupts every 5 to 7 minutes and there were a number of smaller ones
there too. On our way back, we stopped at a small church which had a lovely
interior - very simple but with the most beautiful mosaic of Christ.
It was dark by the time we reached Hveragerdi Spring Park, where heat is
extracted from the ground, enabling them to produce exotic plants, fruits and
vegetables. We walked across the snow to the pools where we were given an
explanatory talk about the history and current practices. IT had been a full day
and we arrived back at our hotel at around 6ish. We'd hoped to have dinner in
the hotel but were disappointed to find both restaurants fully booked, and
rather annoyed to hear that they were both closed on Sunday and Monday evenings.
We'd booked this option because eating in seemed a good idea after being out all
day. I hit on the brainwave of having room service, however, and that worked
well. We'd brought a couple of bottles of champagne at the airport, alcohol
being extremely expensive in Iceland, and it had been chilling all day in the
min-bar so was just right after our busy day. The food took nearly an hour to
arrive but by way of apology they had included a bottle of red wine with it. We
didn't mind at all!
Today's tour was optional but many of us went on it and were delighted that
we did so. We had an early start - 8am, so it was very dark. However, we had a
great sunrise and the weather was stunning all day with bright blue skies and
little wind. This was the South Shore Adventure and we first visited Mount Hekla
(from a distance), an volcano which erupts approximately every 10 years, and was
once believed to be the Gate to hell. Then on to the first of two waterfalls,
the name of which I can't recall, the second being Skogar, which we looked so
pretty in the sun with a double rainbow going through it at one point.
Then on to one of the highlights of the trip, a glacier, where we were able
to take a walk right up to the ice. From a distance, the glacier looked like
rocks but were in fact solid blocks of ice, flecked with black volcanic dust. It
really was an incredible sight.
We stopped in Vik, a coastal town famous for its sea stacks with breeding
colonies of seabirds, and not far away, one of the most beautiful beaches in the
world, as listed by US magazine Islands, and the only non-tropical one. The
beach is of black volcanic sand and is backed by giant rock stacks and deserves
the accolade. It seemed strange being on a snowy beach.
We also visited a fascinating museum back in Skogar, but unfortunately didn't
have time to explore it properly. We were taken around by the old man who has
made it his life's work - he's done a grand job. He serenaded us with a folk
tune on a traditional stringed instrument and then astounded us with a rendition
of God Save The Queen on a harpsichord! A real character with some great stories
to tell. According to my guidebook, it's usually only open during the summer so
we were fortunate to be given a private tour.
On our way back, we were delighted to see the Northern Lights starting in the
sky - not too easy to see from the coach, but no matter because we were to take
a further trip during the evening. We arrived back with half an hour to spare
before setting out again for the Lobster Feast/Northern Lights trip. We had a 45
minute drive to the restaurant but stopped on the way to admire the sky. I was
expecting multi-coloured lights but they were all green - or white, as it looked
to all of us except the guide! The lights look like sheets of gossamer,
streaking down from the sky and it's a wonderful spectacle. Sadly, my digital
photos didn't come out. We could also see Mars quite clearly - that did come out, but just as one
bright spot of light in darkness. After a chilly stop, we went on for dinner,
which was delicious. We splashed out on a couple of beers each at almost £5 a
bottle but it was worth it. On the way back, the lights were even more beautiful
so we stopped again. Very memorable, we were so lucky. The trip had been planned
for the following evening but the weather forecast wasn't good so they changed