North Atlantic Adventure: Iceland – Part One
by Dr Anthony D. Cliffe
Welcome to a series of travel blogs from what was truly an epic two week solo adventure that took me to Iceland where I walked under waterfalls and the Northern Lights, Halifax to scramble over sea rocks on the Atlantic coast, walk up mountains in -5 in St. Johns, fall in love in Prince Edward Island and my first Canadian thanksgiving with family in Toronto. This trip was the final trip on my 2017 travels and it surpassed my expectations in every single way. I came back from this trip so tired but so full of life and energy and memories that will stay with me for a life time. I took over 3000 pictures on this trip and that was from my main camera alone, there were another 1000 on my phone along with plenty of videos. In no way can I truly capture the essence of the trip and the pictures will never do the experience justice but I will try my best to convey it as best as I can in these blogs. Along the way I’ll tell you where I stayed, the cost of the hotels and tours and my recommendations just in case you end up over that side of the world one day. So sit back and relax and I hope you enjoy my indulgence in nostalgic memories and photographs from my trip. This blog starts with Day one…off to Iceland, the land of fire and ice
The land of fire and ice
Iceland to me has always been this mystical Island way out in the heart of the rugged North Atlantic, nestled just below the Arctic Circle. Built on thousands of years of volcanic activity and at the heart of the meeting place of the North American and European plates, as a geographer, there is no more a special place to visit. You see it in text books and you see it in videos and it’s always been on my list to visit. As a geographer, it’s one of those must see countries. It has it all from active volcanoes, to glaciers, to human impacts, it’s as if Mother Nature herself wanted a perfect case study of how our earth works. Of course however Iceland is expensive! Such beauty comes at a cost. As 2017 was my year of travel I had toyed and even priced up a solo trip to Iceland but decided it was just too expensive when I looked way back in January of this year. As much as I wanted to go, the price that it was I could have done a few mini city breaks instead. That frustrated me but I reasoned that I will get there one day. One of my best friends Han from my undergrad days has been a few times and sang its praises constantly, something my family have also done when they went last March to visit. Instead I went ahead and booked those other European breaks for this year and that was that…until.
Luckily when booking this epic solo North Atlantic adventure the option to fly via Iceland to Canada with Icelandair came up while organising this trip. What a perfect excuse to visit! Icelandair offer a new stop over ticket which is both a convenient and excellent idea for visiting Iceland. As Iceland is situated pretty much half way between mainland Europe and North America, Icelandair has built their business around transfer passengers using their base in Keflavik as a perfect and smooth system (which it really is! It was a breeze changing planes here on my way back from Canada). Of course it’s all well and good having passengers connect through to further destinations for cheaper prices but Iceland loses out on that tourism. So a shrewd move by Icelandair and their government introduced the stop-over ticket. One plane ticket from the UK to Canada with up to 7 days stop-over in Iceland to enjoy the delights of this wonderful country at no extra charge. As I was going to spend most of my time in Canada and to save money I elected to have a 2 day stop over, giving me an afternoon, a full day and a morning in Iceland. Sufficient for a taster and a hopefully great start to my holiday.
I was looking forward to my two week adventure and I knew this was going to be the last trip in what was already a fantastic year of travel thus far and even the £8 water and barely edible wrap from Manchester airport wasn’t going to dampen that spirit. As a seasoned traveller it still amazes me how stressed people get in airports and their ultimate fight to find a seat in the departure lounge. Granted I get stressed going through security, always do and always will but once I’m through I can relax. The clever traveller goes to find a gate to sit at rather than the departure lounge which always lack enough seats because it forces you to walk around and look in the shops. I looked out of the window and saw the tail of my aircraft and headed down to the gate, trusting my knowledge that this would be the gate even before it appeared on the board.
It was completely quiet and peaceful until the gate appeared on the monitors and the hordes of travellers filled up the seats. Icelandair use Boeing 757’s. The last time I was on 757 was the very first time I ever went to Canada when I was like 4/5 years old on Canada 3000. For an Avgeek the 757 is a classic aircraft affectionately known as the ‘Pencil plane’. It’s old and out of production but still a work horse of the skies, plus without the risk of sounding too nerdy I still don’t think the aviation industry has yet produced a jet engine that sounds as good as the 757 Rolls Royce RB211’s. Anyway…
The flight was full and we took off and headed north, up out over Scotland, not that I saw anything mind you, nothing but solid cloud below but it felt really good to finally be on my way for this two week adventure. I’d waited a long time for it! Icelandair were very good, excellent leg room and seat width and pitch in economy (I’d be super lucky on my flight back to try out their business class seats!). You don’t get any food on-board in economy (unless you pay beforehand) but for a 2hr 30min flight I survived just fine. You do get free drinks however from the very pretty stewardesses. I must say I used to think Aer Lingus had the hottest flight attendants but out of the four Icelandair flights I took on this trip, every flight was manned by absolute 10’s and worldies. So many blondes! Not to objectify women but they were so fit that it would be unfair not to comment on it. Of course they were exceptionally professional and great at their job, super friendly and efficient. Good job guys! After chatting to some people and tracking my own flight on flightradar on my phone (thank you onboard wifi! That costs around £4 and was pretty quick, quick enough to live stream leaving UK airspace and for WhatsApp and FlightRadar) after 2 hours we started our descent into the land of fire and ice.
The clouds broke up long enough for me to get a glimpse of the coastline and Reykjavik in the distance for a whole minute before we descended into thick cloud and rain. Typical Icelandic weather greeting. The approach into Keflavik airport and looking out of the window I knew how sparse and other world like this place was but it’s not until you fly over it does it all really sink in.
By touchdown I was itching to get out of the plane and explore and I was super excited! I was finally here! Leaving the plane however to get the bus to the terminal was a bit of shock to the system. Leaving the UK it was relatively warm at around 14 degrees. There is nothing like a blast of 4 degrees of a strong Atlantic wind and rain to wake you up and make you feel refreshed from the flight! From landing, to passport control, to collecting my bag and being on the Flybus to my hotel took a grand total of 15 minutes! If that’s not efficiency then I don’t know what is! Something I wish other airports *cough cough* Manchester was like. I was liking this experience already. The Flybus is a great system too and I recommend you use it if you do come to Iceland. It costs about £40 return but it’s the cheapest and easiest way to get to Reykjavik. The airport is a good 45 minute drive away and I don’t know how much a taxi costs but I guarantee it’s a lot more than that! You pre-book your ticket, get on the bus, the driver asks which hotel you’re going to and gives you a coloured card. The bus takes you all the way into the city centre bus depot where different smaller buses with your coloured card in the window wait to take you to the hotel. Again, super-efficient. The drive from the airport to the city was stunning and I was actually speechless at the views as we drove along the rugged black sand coast with volcanoes at the side of the road to the depot. Free wi-fi onboard was useful and despite the annoying loud American woman who was sitting behind me on facetime to her friend, “Oh my gaaaawd LISA! IT’S SO FREAKIN’ COLD” (the country had Ice in its name lady for Christ sake) the 45 minute ride to the city was a great introduction to the country. Luckily my red ticket meant I had to stay on this bus through to the hotel. By this time the rain had stopped and small patches of blue sky had started to form but I was glad to stay inside the heated bus for a little longer. My hat and gloves were still nestled in my suitcase! Doh!
Not long after we left the depot I arrived at my hotel the Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g189970-d10046045-Reviews-Eyja_Guldsmeden_Hotel-Reykjavik_Capital_Region.html
Now I could have stayed in the city for cheaper but fellow travel companions will know that I really value my comfort from hotels. I much prefer 4 and 5 star hotels! So much so that I am a Genius member on Booking.com which gives me access to such hotels for a price of a 3 star because I’ve booked so many hotels with them this year! The hotel for two nights costs me around £320 but it is Iceland prices and I couldn’t fault this hotel. Very Icelandic, very eco-friendly and very snazzy! I even got a free upgrade! My luck with upgrades continues in life it seems. I had booked the cheaper single room but they upgraded me to the top floor double which was far bigger (Iceland hotels are notoriously compact but this was a good sized Icelandic room!), massive TV, awesome shower and one of the most comfiest four poster beds I have ever slept in.
After a quick freshen up and charge of my phone I headed out to explore the city. Even leaving the doors of the hotel was a treat. The doors sliding away to reveal the sea and the looming fjord, what a sight! I got an instant good vibe about the city as I walked through it, I love the different colours of the buildings, there is hardly any high rise which adds to its appeal, artistic graffiti gave different buildings different character and ah yeah, just what a lovely city!
For tea I headed to the Hard Rock Café. As you know that’s a travel tradition of mine and after buying my t-shirt I headed up to the restaurant. You can never go wrong with a Hard Rock Café and this one didn’t disappoint either, although this was the first time I’ve had had a waitress come and sit down opposite me and chat while taking my order and eating! Maybe she felt sorry for the solo traveller? Who knows! Lovely young girl, she’s moving to the Manchester Hard Rock café and should actually be there and settled in by now! When I asked her why she would go there rather than stay she mentioned about how there’s nothing to do here for young people and wanted to work in the UK before…yep that dreaded word Brexit stops her. I begged to differ and even if that were true if I had a choice to live in Iceland or Manchester, it certainly wouldn’t be the shithole that is the latter I can assure you of that!
By time I left the Hard Rock the sun was beginning to set as I walked around the harbour. It was very quiet, most of the work traffic had gone home and only the odd tourist could be seen. North Atlantic seabirds squawked as they headed to their nests as the small aircraft came in waves into the city’s small airport. I was jealous, what an approach over the bay into that airport, I hope to experience that one day.
I watched the sun turn the sky into a purple hue as I strolled around the harbour, the looming mountain and fjord across the water fading slowly into the darkness. I just sat on a stone wall and watched the sunset with nobody around me, breathing in that crisp clear air. As night time fell the city grew quieter, the lights of the Harper building (their opera house) shone on the still water. There was not much point hanging around to try and catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights as my tour that evening had been cancelled due to cloud and low solar activity which was a miniscule 2 on the KP index. They had rearranged for tomorrow so knowing I had a full 9 hour tour ahead tomorrow I walked back to the hotel, stopping off in a shop to pick up some snacks and water for tomorrow’s adventure. After a long hot geothermal shower I snuggled up inside this huge bed and before I knew it day one was done! Tomorrow the adventure really began!