Monday, 31 December 2012

Waterfalls 2, Northern Lights 0

Awoke to a very windy morning, still pitch black, and got suited up for the short walk to the main house for breakfast. Quite a spread, with smoked and pickled fish, two types of home-made bread – one cooked in the steam from the hot springs – and one unmissable novelty, the chance to boil an egg in the hot springs using a contraption like a fishing rod with a net on the end. Naturally Alex did so!

We left shortly after it got light – at around 10.30. We set out on the itinerary prepared for us by the travel agent, but got distracted by what looked like a small volcano beside the road, with a cluster of white crosses at its base. Alex was determined to climb up – it was quite steep and near the top the wind became so strong that we really couldn’t stand, so we slipped and slithered back down across a mixture of ice and gravel. Later we found that the crosses commemorated those killed on the road between Reykjavik and Selfoss.
Our next stop was Seljalandsfoss, a dramatic waterfall which in summertime you can walk behind - although this is impossible with ice on the ground. The steps leading to the path were covered in icicles, a really dramatic sight. We spent some time here, enjoying the views, eating last night’s pizza for lunch and – in Alex’s case – sliding down the slopes on a mini-toboggan we had brought with us. Worth also mentioning the toilets here – picturesque wooden huts with heaters, very luxurious!

We drove a little further along the road, where there were further waterfalls, and then turned back onto route 1 for a visit to Seljavallalaug – a hot spring-fed natural swimming pool supposed to be very picturesque. Here the effects of the 2010 volcanic eruption were clear to see – the ground was covered with black cinder and the last section of the road was blocked off. It was so windy that we were pebbledashed by the cinder when we opened the car windows, so we decided to move on after admiring the dramatic scenery.
Continuing east, we headed for Sk├│garfoss, the last in a series of 20 waterfalls and considered to be one of Iceland’s finest. It was so windy here that Alex could hardly stand up and when he stood on frozen puddles the wind pushed him along the ice. The waterfall was dramatic, though, and a rainbow hovered above it. We were able to get quite close by walking on the frozen mud at the edge of the river, where we could feel the icy spray.

Our next destination was Dyrh├│laey, a rocky promontory which we reached by a causeway. From here we had a great view of the setting sun, behind a rock arch, on one side and on the other a black beach alongside an inlet. It was beginning to get dark as we pressed on to Reynisfjara, a dramatic black beach with stacks of basalt columns. Alex enjoyed skimming stones here, and we almost missed the cave around the headland where the bottom of the basalt stacks formed the ceiling.
Although it was almost dark, we continued to Vik in the hope of finding somewhere to buy a drink – we had seen no cafes or filling stations all day so we had nothing to drink since breakfast. It was before 5pm when we reached Vik but everything was closed. We used the autopay to top up the tank with diesel and then headed back to our hotel, close to the first waterfall of the morning.

When we got out of the car at Hotel Anna it was all we could do to close the boot against the wind. The hotel is homely and old-fashioned and our room is right off the reception area. Exploring, we find that Anna was a real person who, despite humble beginnings on a farm nearby and only 4 years of education, travelled the world and wrote several books. There are jars on a shelf containing ash from the eruption in 2010.
The menu for dinner is typical for Iceland but alien to us – the meat options were lamb, horse or whale! Alex enjoys the horse, as well as the inevitable jokes about being able to eat one. The main topic of conversation is the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights – it’s a clear night, which bodes well, but the forecast for auroral activity is very low. The chances of Aurora tomorrow are much higher, but the forecast is for heavy cloud.

At least, we go outside a couple of times and look at the sky just in case. The stars are beautiful and the moon is bright, but no Aurora. Still, with so much to see they’re not essential – just the icing on an already delicious cake. In between we keep up with new year's celebrations around the world on BBC World.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Extreme bathing 3, Northern Lights 0

Wow! Wow Air is the first airline I've flown with where the safety announcement gets a round of applause. The quirky humour is refreshing. The flight passes quickly and Alex is the first to spot land. First impressions: a black and white land bathed in an eerie milky light.

The airport is small but modern and Alex is impressed by the architecture. By the time we've claimed our bags he's already asking if he can move there. We change money, pick up our car keys and venture outside. The wind is icy and frozen snow crunches underfoot. The Satnav takes us to the Blue Lagoon where we change into our bathing kits and go in search of our first Icelandic experience.

I was wondering how to get into the water without getting frostbite, but they've cunningly made the pool dip inside the building so you can enter the water without going outside. The water is naturally heated but the pool isn't natural, it was built to take the water from the geothermal power station just over the hill. It's still a pretty cool experience luxuriating in the warm water while steam rises into the chilly air above. The black volcanic rock surrounding it has a generous coat of frozen snow. There are pots of the mineral mud that gives the water its claimed beneficial properties, so Alex and I enjoy a face mask, much to Simon's amusement. Later the joke's on me, when I get back to the changing room and realise my face is covered in blotches.

It's dark when we leave and the roads are quite treacherous, but we make it to the Frost and Fire guest house at Hveragerdi without incident. Our room is perfect - spacious and cosy with a mineral pool right outside; there's also a hot tub by the river.

The only eating place open is a pizza and burger bar, but the pizzas are excellent. We order far too much and take half away with us. Alex and I brave the freezing wind and sample both pools, although I draw the line at the natural steam room - it smells too strongly of sulphur. The sky clears somewhat but there's no sign of the Aurora. We're in bed by 11.