I chose the world’s northernmost capital to celebrate my fiftieth birthday. My plan had been to spot whales and the Aurora Borealis on my birthday, memorable moments on my special day. I will reveal how I got on with these plans later.
We arrived on the Thursday night for four nights staying at the splendid Ambassade Apartments (see my earlier post, A Warm Welcome In Iceland), situated in a quiet side street a few minutes walk from Reykjavik’s numerous bars, shops & restaurants. Too late for dining out, we made do with some very tasty takeaway pizza washed down with red wine, whilst sat in our very comfortable accommodation.
We had booked the classic taster tour for our introduction into Iceland’s stunning landscapes. The Gray Line Tours minibus picked us up right on schedule to take us the whole two minute journey to their main office, so we could alight our packed coach. It was 10.30 in the morning but the sun was yet to rise.
We were soon out of the compact capital, the fifty-seater gliding along the snowy roads as we took in the Christmas card scenes all around us.
Þingvellir National Park
First stop was Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park, home to the world’s oldest Parliament founded by the Vikings in 981AD and also the place where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates meet. We took an hour long stroll through the beautiful glacial park, taking it in turns to take ‘couply’ pictures of each other (except that is for the smug looking pairs with their extendable selfie sticks)!
We were rewarded for our hiking efforts with sweet hot chocolate in the park cafe, before we were off again for the centre piece and highlight of the tour, Gullfoss Waterfall.
Gullfoss lived up to its reputation as ice-cold water gushed down the snowy ravine into the river below. Toasty in our thermals, we took in every vantage point and angle, before yomping to the cafe to consume some warming Icelandic lamb stew.
A fifteen-minute ride took as to Geysir, home of volcanic hot springs, including Skollfoss, an extremely active gusher that treated us to a hot & steamy explosion every five minutes. We waited huddled in a ring Stonehenge like, cameras poised for the dramatic moment. “Coming, coming, coming. Oh blast I missed it!”
The area provided a fabulous contrast. An icy backdrop of mountains & snow-covered trees encircling the warm patch of bubbling mud and volcanic vapours.
Our last stop of the day was to visit a lovely white church founded by a Lutheran bishop.
Dining in Iceland isn’t cheap. For those on a budget I would recommend finding an apartment and bringing your own supplies (including wine!) – tonight for me however was a special night, the last night of my forties.
We chose Steak House near the Old Harbour for the auspicious occasion. Steaks tend to be great or bad, with no in between. Happily we were not to be disappointed. A good job at £60 a head.
We finished the night with a nightcap at Kaffibarinn, the bar part owned by Damon Albarn, before returning to the apartment to open the birthday cards I had brought with me.
When The Whales Came?
Today was the big day. Off to the Old Harbour to board a boat to go and spot whales & dolphins. With every ticket came a free sea sickness tablet. I didn’t need one but some poor souls apparently needed more as they groaned and grimaced for the whole trip.
We donned onesie wetsuits, slipped anchor and waited for the cetaceans to arrive. We waited and waited and waited. Evidently the whales had ‘gone fishing’ and would not be making an appearance anytime soon.
The three hour spin around the greater harbour area was great notwithstanding. Snow-capped mountains & crystal clear waters, with Reykjavik itself as an impressive backdrop.
Just as we were about to head back, a school of black nosed dolphins showed their dorsals. Cue fifteen minutes of mayhem. We had been getting commentary on all you wanted to know about whales, dolphins and seabirds when suddenly the commentator’s words changed. Eleven o’clock, 100 metres away, now at three o’clock 200 metres, oh they’ve disappeared, quick, quick, twelve o’clock, one hundred & fifty metres.
A quarter hour of mayhem ensued as us whale-spotters, cameras poised, charged/wobbled from side to side, desperately trying to get shots of our intelligent friends.
Then they were gone, so we chugged home. I commented that if we were in America, they would have had a huge inflatable Orca to tow behind the boat, so we could take some photographs and claim we had seen the real thing!
Lights, Cameras, Action (Borora Aurealis)
So no whales, but the prospects for the Lights that evening were described as excellent.
We bought the most expensive takeaway fish & chips ever, fifteen pounds for two pieces of fish the size of two fish fingers apiece and nine chunky chips each. We augmented this with a four pound can of soup from the supermarket and an eighteen pound bottle of wine from the wine shop. We also purchased a bottle of Icelandic stout (called Lava, 9.5%) and a small tub of Pringles to crack open to celebrate the appearance of the Lights.
Clambering aboard the bus just before the 7pm departure, we could clearly see the stars that shone brightly in the ink-black sky. Our guide confirmed that our prospects were brilliant. The magnetic index was only three out of ten, but the sightings were often excellent when the score was only two. Inga was 80% sure we would see them.
We headed once more for the Þingvellir National Park so we were far away from artificial light. The stars were amazing, shining brilliantly. The Aurora was just a matter of time, and time, and time. The temperature dropped to minus nine degrees and before long we were frozen to the spot, just willing the Lights to show their green trickery.
Alas we were all to be disappointed, the powers that be had switched the lights off that night. Inga’s amazement that they had not appeared was nowhere near to being a crumb of comfort. Around midnight we gave up and headed home. The Lava beer and Pringles tasted OK, they would have been wonderful if they had been consumed in celebratory manner.
I turned to Mrs Wilbur and said that if we had been in America, a laser show would have sprung into action as a compensation for missing the natural phenomenon. Maybe not, but at least it made us smile.
Our spirits were further lifted when we returned to the apartment. The fabulous owners had left a bottle of wine and delicious fruit sponge to mark my fiftieth. Lovely touch.
Lazy Sunday in Reykjavik
With no more excursions planned, we enjoyed brunch in our apartment before spending time to explore Reykjavik properly. We first headed for the spaceship like Lutheran church named Hallgrímskirkja with its seventy-three metre tower that is visible from all over the capital, including for most of our unsuccessful whale spotting expedition.
It was constructed between 1945 & 1986 and has a plain but impressive interior. I would also imagine the acoustics will be fantastic for any concerts performed there.
Other highlights of the cold day that was punctuated regularly with coffee & cake stops, included the beguiling Sun Voyager sculpture positioned by the sea, with the snowy backdrop of Mount Esja.
The windchill as I took a few snaps was excruciatingly cold, so we quickly sought refuge in a delightful pub called Islenski Barinn. We avoided the row of three theatre seats placed in one corner and sat on more conventional chairs. Local red wine and fried potatoes were perfect winter warmers.
We topped the night off with burgers at the Lebowski Bar, homage to the Coen Brother’s cult movie, The Big Lebowski. Fans of the film will appreciate all the film themes and the thirty versions available of the ‘Dude’s’ favourite drink, White Russian.
We returned home in a fabulous snow blizzard, a wonderful experience when you have no particular place to go.
Last Day Blues
Travel day was for mooching. A stroll in the picturesque park, dominated by the frozen Lake Tjörnin. Some boys played ice-football. I was tempted to join them until Mrs Wilbur reminded me of my lack of ability to even stand on ice, let alone dribble with the ball or take a shot!
The edge of the lake was still water, a haven for swans, geese and ducks, and what a racket they made!
It was decidedly warmer today in the winter sunshine so we returned to Sun Voyager for some photographs with a different perspective.
just time left for a bowl of hearty lobster soup at the famous Sægreifinn (Sea Baron) Restaurant, situated in an atmospheric old fisherman’s hut by the Old Harbour. Wooden trestle tables, barrels to sit on, nets & seagulls, you get the image.
Before long, we were airport bound, travelling through the eerie snowbound landscape of lava fields that had just been a dark wilderness when we arrived.
One final word of warning at the airport. If you fancy a last beer before your flight, check how strong it is. I plumped for an Icelandic porter brewed by Ga Run without realising it was 11.5% strong. At least it ensured I slept well on the flight!
All in all we had a fabulous time in Iceland. We barely scratched the surface of what the picturesque island has to offer, did not see whales or the Aurora Borealis and skipped the Blue Lagoon, but this just means we will have to go back. A big thumbs up.