Thursday, 3 January 2013

Homeward bound

An early start and a pleasant surprise when pretty much a full breakfast buffet awaits us in the restaurant at 6am. We load up the car and set off for the airport in the dark. We're planning to fill up at the filling station behind the car hire office but although we follow the credit card pre-pay instructions we just can't make the diesel come out. We give up and hand the car back with 3/4 of a tank, and the fuel surcharge is not much more than it would have cost to fill it at the station.

The terminal is a short walk away and we have chores to do - claim the tax back on the volcanic rock bracelet I bought at Gullfoss and change our Kroner back to Sterling. Both are accomplished without drama, Alex has a hot dog for breakfast (!) and we arrive at the gate to find our flight is already boarding. An uneventful flight home, arriving to unseasonably mild weather and a bright blue sky - a rare treat after perpetual twilight.

We may not have achieved our objective, but this was still a fantastic holiday. We have seen so much that it feels we have been away much longer than four nights. Now to find another destination to search for the Northern Lights ...

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Fool's errands 1, Northern Lights 0

While we were sleeping it must have thawed, because the snowman’s head has fallen off. Lucky we took advantage of the snow last night. The sky is still heavy and when we leave the hotel we discover that it’s raining. But first, breakfast: make-yourself waffles is the highlight. While we eat, we check the routes to Gullfoss and the travel news. The route using primary roads is twice as far as retracing our steps from last night, and the conditions are reported as reasonable so we decide to go cross-country.

The drive is uneventful and we are among the first to arrive at Gullfoss; the snow on the path to the falls is unmarked. We can hear the falls long before we reach them, and they are truly magnificent. The water flows down a wide first drop, then some rapids and then a second drop into a deep gorge. Apparently the flow is sometimes so powerful that the water overflows the gorge. 

Visibility isn’t great and it’s raining still, but I take many photos while Alex and Simon build a snowman at one of the best viewpoints. It quickly becomes a tourist attraction of its own – people are photographing it before they have even finished building it.
After a brief – but expensive! – shopping stop, we set off for Reykjavik. Again we take the most direct route, past Geysir and along the fault at the edge of the Eurasian plate. As we pass the geysers the steam mingles with the low cloud. The road appears to be only wet but I discover it’s ice beneath when we power slide around a bend. In the national park there is a lot of snow on the road and the monster trucks throw it over the windscreen as they pass, blocking my visibility. It’s pretty scary.
Leaving the national park the road climbs higher towards a ski resort; there is more snow here and taller road markers. Then suddenly we are descending, the driving conditions improve and we reach Reykjavik at about 2.45. Arriving at the Hotel Klettur the receptionist kindly offers an early breakfast and Alex is happy to find the first “real” bed of the holiday.
We’re hungry but we decide to check out the cathedral before we eat, as it will begin to get dark soon.  Its design is inspired by the basalt columns we saw near Vik, and there is a statue of Leif Ericsson outside. We take the lift to the top of the tower, from which there are great views of the city and its colourful houses, the port and the surrounding mountains. Then Simon navigates to the old part of the city, beyond the lake, with a brief stop at a noodle shop on the way.
I don’t find Reykjavik a particularly attractive city. The newer houses are drab and grey, made of concrete and corrugated iron, and look institutional. The older buildings are more colourful but built from the same utilitarian materials. There are some impressive detached specimens along the lakeside, and the view is made more picturesque by the lights reflected in the wet roads and pavements. We find a restaurant for dinner and browse the shops, but it’s not particularly enjoyable walking in the rain so we head back to the hotel.
In reception, we notice that the Northern Lights tours are going ahead and the receptionist tells us that the area around the airport is expected to clear later. We check the weather and Aurora forecasts and, although the chances seem slim, we decide to drive out and take our chances. After “epic” burgers at Café 73 we pick up the car at the hotel and set off for the most westerly village on the peninsula, beyond the airport.
Looking for a dark corner, we park behind a church at the far end of the village. It continues to rain. We walk a little way along the track to check whether we can turn around at the end. It rains some more. It’s 10pm, Alex’s cold is worse, Simon doesn’t feel well either and the rain shows no signs of stopping – and we have to get up at 5am. We’re in the car debating our next move when a convoy of three tourist coaches passes on the main road. Wondering if they are Northern Lights tours, we decide we have nothing to lose by following them. Their destination turns out to be the airport. It’s still raining so we decide to drive back to the hotel and get some sleep

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Continental plates 2, Northern Lights 0

Following in-depth research last night, it had been decided that I would get up at 6am to check for the Northern Lights. My enthusiasm was somewhat diminished by the time the alarm went off, but I pulled on my warm clothes over pyjamas and ventured outside. So glad I did! Not that the Aurora appeared but it was beautiful nonetheless; still and silent, the snowy mountains glowing in the moonlight and a million twinkling stars. Just our luck that perfect weather conditions coincide with a period of very low auroral activity.

Back to bed for a couple more hours before proper waking time, still well before dawn. We sit down to breakfast at 9; not such an impressive spread as yesterday but as it's new year's day we're not sure where our next meal will come from so we eat well and I pack a sandwich for Alex.

When we set off for the Golden Circle the moon is still high in the sky. We drive for half an hour before seeing another car, then find a petrol station open and stop for drinks and a coach party arrives - the first we've seen.

Our first stop today is the crater of a small volcano at Kerið. We take a brief look from the rim, then found a path leading right down to the frozen pool at the bottom; there was even a bench down there! Alex enjoyed skimming stones across the ice.

We continue on to Þhingvellir national park and drive around the plain between the Eurasian and North American continental plates. The scenery is dramatic, with deep rifts, rocky escarpments and corrugated rocks made when oozing lava solidified. We stop briefly at the information centre for lunch and the woman who serves us advises us where to go - there is a path through the rift valley to the place where Iceland's ancient parliament first sat, and a bonus - another waterfall.

 The sun has already set when we set off for Geysir but at this latitude twilight lasts a couple of hours, giving the illusion that time has stood still. We can tell when we're nearing our destination as the plumes of steam are visible in the distance. The original Geysir no longer blows unless there is an earthquake but Strokkur lets rip every 8-10 minutes. There are a number of steaming pools of various sizes and they cast a pall of steam that looks pretty atmospheric in the gathering gloom.

We still have Gullfoss waterfall to see today but it's almost dark when we set off and although it's only 10km down the road it's impossible to see it when we arrive, although we can hear it rumbling. Our hotel is only 30km away so we can return in the morning.

The route to Flúðir starts off as an unmade road but it's well maintained and clearly marked. There are points on the horizon where an eerie orange glow lights the sky; we think it's the sodium lamps in greenhouses. We find our hotel easily, it's larger and more modern than the others we have stayed in, but there's only one car in the car park - although a coach arrives as we bring in our bags. Apart from this, the sizeable town seems deserted - there's nobody about and the silence is slightly surreal.

Our room is rather like a beach hut, and the bathroom has a door opening onto a central garden where the beach hut effect is even more pronounced. We turn on the tv and find that Celebrity Mastermind (formerly compered by Icelander Magnus Magnusson) was about to start, followed by Up. Having postponed an earlier trip to Iceland in search of the Northern Lights, Simon had insisted we shouldn't let the trip become an "Up" moment - if I was superstitious. I would definitely consider this A SIGN.

We check the forecast again and see that we have total cloud cover and low auroral activity, meaning no chance to see the Northern Lights tonight. But we all agree that it's not too much of a disappointment because of everything else we've seen. After dinner in the hotel we discover that it's snowing: a definite bonus for Alex. We end our day with a snowball fight and build a snowman.