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Travel Experience – Iceland
By Monica Bethune
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to experience and explore this amazing country and create some wonderful memories that I now hold dear.
After spending a few days in Edinburgh we flew into Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, an easy two-hour journey. Our driver met us at the modern airport for the 30-minute drive to the city centre where we checked into our hotel and had an early night before starting a six-day Intrepid Northern Lights Escape tour. Our tour was to take us around regional areas to explore the countryside and stay in guest houses away from the bright lights of the city so we could search the skies for the Northern Lights.
Our first day included a trip out to the Thingvellir National Park, which sits in a valley between two tectonic plates. It is also the site where Iceland formed its first parliament back in the 10th century. We visited Iceland's Geyser geothermal area where we saw the Strokkur geyser shoot 30 metres into the air, a natural occurrence, which repeats every 30 minutes or so. Later, we visited Gullfoss a huge, powerful two-tier waterfall that averages 140 cubic metres of water per second. That night we had our first small glimpse of the northern lights.
The next day we visited Skogafoss waterfall, Iceland’s biggest waterfall, which has lots of ancient myths surrounding it. Then we travelled to the southern shore of the Icelandic coast to wonder at the night black (volcanic) sand beaches, passing through lava fields on the way. That afternoon we visited Jokulsarlon Lagoon, a huge glacier that has come down from the mountains and is breaking into the sea. The broken ice washes up like huge blue diamonds the size of small cars onto the charcoal sand beaches nearby – a magnificent sight!
The next morning we woke early to meet with a local guide who took us on a walk on Vatnajkull, Iceland’s, and even Europe's, largest glacier. The ice averages 400 metres thick in some areas and it is humbling to wander through the natural ice tunnels that have shaped this more than 100-year-old glacier. That afternoon we went to the small seaside town of Vik. It is in impressive sight to see the sea on one side of this quaint little village contrasted against the high cliffs and mountains on the other side. There are a few lookouts on top of the nearby cliffs that were perfect vantage points for taking photos.
That night at our farmhouse we stayed up to watch the Northern Lights as the forecast was showing good signs. Although we had to be patient, it was worth the wait when we saw large patches of the star-filled sky turn bright, glowing green.
On the last full day of our regional tour we hiked out to the DC 3 plane wreck. In 1973, a US navy plane ran out of fuel while travelling to a nearby base and had to land on the shores of the black sand beach. Everyone made it out safe but the wreckage has become a twisted shell affected by the harsh weather conditions creating an eerie apocalyptic type of site, which made for some amazing photos.
That afternoon we drove back into Reykjavik where our small group sat down in a traditional Icelandic restaurant for some authentic food and drink. We tried delicacies like fermented and dried shark, Skyr yogurt, rye bread ice cream, lamb strew and schnapps.
Iceland is full of natural wonders in its regional areas and it really is a ‘must’ to get out and explore them. This can be easily done in summer by hiring a car as the roads are mostly sealed and well kept. However, in the winter a tour is the best idea if you are not comfortable driving in extreme weather with chains.
February is the last month of winter in Iceland and the whole country is covered in metres of snow and everything looks like a beautiful wonderland, but it can make for very extreme conditions especially when it gets windy and rainy. We were lucky that most of our days had clear skies but the weather can be unpredictable. This means that you do have to make sure that you are prepared with the correct clothing, shoes and snow gear. Good thermals are also a ‘must’ as the temperature can drop to below 5 degrees.
As a special treat after a few days of travelling I recommend the Blue Lagoon, a popular hot spring complex located just outside Reykjavik. It is a bit expensive but very popular so it needs to be booked at least one or two months in advance or even longer if you plan of getting one of the extra treatments that they offer.
Iceland truly is a country full of the most amazing natural wonders and sites. I was constantly in awe of Mother Nature and her beauty. The land is densely filled with the most incredible natural sights I have ever experienced. Although visiting in the winter snow was magical, I would love to go back again in summer to see a completely different landscape, which I imagine would be almost unrecognisable.