When I started working in 1979 my first self-financed holiday was to Iceland that Easter; however it was only my second time abroad, my first being a trip to Croatia sponsored by my mother post Leaving Cert after school. On that visit I stayed in the nice Youth Hostel by lovely lake Tjornin in Reykjavik and survived on a box of cornflakes due to the impossible cost of food there. I spent my money on a tour of "The Golden Circle", the classical circuit enjoyed by most people on their visit to Iceland, but I also ventured on an overnight trip to The Westman Islands, where a volcano had erupted only 3 years previously and had affected life in a profound way.
This time I took advantage of a €200 voucher from The Travel Department which was afforded me on account of a China-Japan cruise which went a bit wrong the previous summer. Also it was a solo friendly holiday, making for a nice value holiday for me. My previous visit to Iceland had been at Easter, and this one was too, but at an earlier date. Ireland had been experiencing a woeful March/early April and Iceland was experienced positive warmth by comparison. I sat 2 hours in the aircraft to await de-iceing in Dublin, on an Airpost Europe charter flight. The flight itself was little more than 2 hours, and we landed in pleasant calm weather before boarding a bus bound for The Blue Lagoon geo-thermal spa en route to the hotel in Reykjavik. This wonderful open air pool is a hot open air lake half man-made, half natural. It was created accidentally in 1976 by the operation of a geothermal power plant, and its waters are rich in silica and algae, very good for the skin. Everybody thoroughly enjoyed their swim in the steamy hot milky blue waters.
The Hotel Bjork provided me with a very comfortable bed for the night and I was fortunate to have a view of the sea and the snow capped mountains. The adjacent restaurant "Pots & Pans" served some wonderful bistro style food-on the first evening I a beautifully served cod dish in orange the licorice sauce and I can tell you it is a lot more subtle than it sounds. I found all the food in Iceland was very appetising and none more hearty than the lunchtime lamb stew soup. There is a great cafe scene in Reykjavik with superb coffee and piping hot homemade cakes a feature. The welcome is warm everywhere, and the locals love to find out what you think of everything.
It was announced that the Northern Lights tour would take place this first night of our arrival as there would be little cloud cover. The bus collected us at 9.30pm and we headed out from the city lights to a quiet location by a beautiful church in the countryside. The cold was penetrating as we stood for nearly an hour in the darkness with our guide ready to point out any celestial activity. I felt there was no hope of seeing anything. Then our guide said look up to the right-a faint mist had formed in the sky but I was convinced it was merely a cloud. Suddenly the mist brightened up and wafted across the sky like a curtain being drawn. It disappeared as quickly as it had come. Again we waited, and again it happened, this time brighter, greener. I was excited, thrilled in fact. Several more times the lights came and went, and my everlasting memory is of an inverted arch of short vertical green streaks.
As always there was a complainer in the audience. According to this woman the lights were not bright enough and we had been dragged out in the cold dark night for to see nothing. The same lady complained later again that the whales weren't big enough after a whale watching trip! Back at home, someone asked me if the Icelandic government had allowed buildings to block the view of the lights!!!
The first time I was in Iceland I actually did not get to see Reykjavik city centre, even though I was staying in the youth hostel which was situated close to the heart. I simply did not have the time as I had spent two precious days in the Westman Islands off the south coast. This time I was brought on a walking tour, first visiting the impressive Hallgrímskirkja church, largest in the country and which stands proud as the tallest building in the city. Next door I saw a sculpture park in the garden of the Einar Jonsson Museum with the artist's interesting works on display. A short stroll away is the city's main shopping street with, I kid you not, its Penis Museum, a collection of phalluses from various creatures around Iceland and its coasts. The shops are smart and cool, and like many other things in Iceland, expensive. The city cathedral is a small building on one side of Austurvöllur Square, the focal point of the centre. The modern Town Hall is located on lovely Tjornin Lake, close to a quirky sculpture called the Unknown Diplomat, a figure with a bag over his body with just his trousered legs protruding. I have never been in a quieter city centre than that of brightly colourful Reykjavik, it's almost silent until very late at night.
It is for the wild countryside that one visits Iceland, and I was pleased to go on the Tour of the South Coast, an area that was new to me. We ventured to Vik which is at the southernmost and wettest part of the country. Fortunately it was merely drizzling a bit when we got there, in contrast to the bright sunshine that accompanied us on the rest of the holiday. The guide did not want us to venture onto the famous black beach which is battered by enormous waves, and where he said tourists had met their death merely walking on the sands so powerful is the sea here. A majestic cliff forms a headland with three piercing volcanic sea stacks as neighbours. The tour was shortened by the fact that two people decided at the very last minute to take the trip, and the bus went back to pick them up. It would only happen in Iceland where the batives have patience unmatched by any other Europeans. A couple of stops got cut out, but we did get a peak at the infamous Ejyafjallajökull volcano which is permanently capped by a glacier. A glacier itself provided a stop for us and those of us who wished were able to walk onto the glacier itself, which has retreated immensely since the year 2000, yet more proof of global warming. The guide said that we have come about the best time of the year, where Iceland still looks its unique best with frost burned vegetation and snow on the stark black and rusty coloured mountain tops-in summer, he said, it is too green all over and could almost be anywhere else to the visitor's eye. Winter is not too harsh for its latitude, and they consider themselves a year round holiday destination. The roads are superb and the driving behaviour exemplary. We saw two beautiful waterfalls on this trip, the water falling white from the tops of steep dark escarpments. The prize stop was at the Skogar Folk Museum where the robust 92 year old founder gave us a demonstration of wool spinning and other such crafts. This was a real treasure trove of days gone by and is Iceland's answer to Bunratty Folk Park.
On the final day I repeated the classic Golden Circle Tour, but on this occasion I enjoyed sunny and relatively mild weather with far less snow cover than before. This trip stops at several points, the first being the National Park of Thingvellir, where the European and American plates meet. It is also the setting of the world's first parliament. A beautiful lake and church and farmhouses lie in the valley with fantastic viewpoints from a volcanic ridge. In 1979 I fell into a deep gulley of snow here and had to be pulled out; no such danger this time. The second stop is at Geysir where there are a group of hot springs. There are fumeroles with steam perpetually rising, holes of boiling water, and the famous geysir, Strokkur, which blasts an enormous spout of water every five minutes or so. Nobody could fail to be impressed by this phenomenon. The third major stop is made at Gullfoss, Iceland's most impressive waterfall. Last time it was frozen over with a grey sky and grey ice waters and grey ice along its banks-it didn't particularly impress me then. This time I saw it in all its magnificence with thundering white falls plunging into dark blue water and golden land either side. The provision of visitor centres is excellent, with places everywhere to enjoy a cup of coffee and use the facilities. Roads are properly surfaced unlike the gravel surfaces of times past. On the way back to the city also pulled in to a field full of the little Icelandic Viking Horses and they came up for a petting.
Some day I might return again to visit the famously mild northern section. Then I would love to visit the north-west fjords, or maybe I'd love to see the oldest and most geologically stable east coast.