After all the excitement of last night, you’d have thought we’d earned a sleep in, but no. It was with great trepidation that I put my Holiday Bootcamp cap back on blew the whistle at 7am to rouse my jet lagged sister and sick mother. It was still dark outside and although they wanted nothing more than to stay in bed, I knew what wonders were awaiting them. I gently insisted they get up and get ready.
We made the short walk from Room with a View to the Iceland Excursions head office under a sky turning intensely pink with the rising sun. We were met there by Inga from Tiny Iceland who boarded the bus with us for the Golden Circle Classic Tour. This tour is a must for first-time visitors to Iceland, especially if you’re short on time. It’s a perfect ‘Best of Iceland’ compilation tour!
We first made our way to Thingvellir National Park to watch the sun rising over the plains protected by UNESCO for their historical, cultural and geological significance. The name Thingvellir translates into “parliament meadow”, so named as it is the founding site for democracy in Iceland. It also happens to straddle the line of continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates. We were let off the coach on Eurasian side, walked through the space in between passing waterfalls, pristine glacier fed fissures and lakes still frozen with winter to re-board on the North American side (or was it vice versa? I’m not sure).
Back on the warm bus, we drove onto to Gullfoss – the Golden Waterfall – which thunders with the power of 109 cubic metres per second! It is nothing short of majestic and on such a cold day, the spray from the falls seems to crystalise in the air… and on the ground making it a tad slippery. Bec and I got a good hold on Mum and carefully, very carefully, inched our way down the steps to the edge of the falls. I had a sudden flashback to the first time I did this tour many years ago – it was a very similar day – chilly and surrounded by little frozen puddles with surfaces cracked by the eager heels of tourists. As I went to make my own mark with my too-thin-boots, I saw clearly in my minds eye the image of Matthew doing the same with his camera around his neck, tucked into his old buttoned-up coat to protect it from the spray and himself from the cold. It is an image of him I love so dearly because he seemed so happy. I looked down at the lump under my own old coat made by the camera that is slung around my own neck these days. It was a strange transposition that gave rise to mixed emotions of sadness that he is gone and pride that I have found the wherewithal to make up for his lack in so many ways.
Mum and Bec retreated to the warmth of the restaurant and gift shop while Inga and I explored a little more. We joined them soon after for a hearty soup lunch before having a little poke around the shop. For as long as I’ve been coming to Iceland, I’ve had my heart set on buying a knitted Icelandic wool dress. There’s been no shortage of them, knitting seems to be a national pastime here, but for one reason or another, I never have… until today! This one caught my eye – it’s certainly not as crazy as some I’ve seen, in fact it’s a fairly sensible charcoal grey but it’s as cute as all get out! Left to my own devices, I probably would have looked and left but Mum and Bec convinced me to try it on and seeing how sweet it was with its little elfin hood, twisted my arm into buying it. I’m glad they did!
Our next stop was the Haukadalur geothermal area, home to Geysir, the first geyser ever described in print. In fact, the word geyser comes from the Icelandic ‘geysir’ meaning ‘to gush’. Sadly, it is now dormant but it’s little brother, Strokkur, still erupts every 5 minutes or so, shooting geothermal water 30 meters up into the air with volcanic force. It is awesome in the the most literal sense of the word. Obviously we could see it at a distance but it’s something else entirely to stand up close and personal, watching and waiting for it to blow with such tremendous power. We did that for some time, trying to catch the split second moment of eruption on camera. When I was satisfied that I’d done the best I could, we wandered around the surrounding field which looks for all the world like the surface of a far flung planet with its mud pools, fumaroles, algal deposits and other smaller geysers (including Litli Geysir – how cute is that name?!).
Having now visited the three major landmarks of the Golden Circle tour, I expected that we’d now be headed for home but our guide and driver decided to add an extra stop for good behaviour. We pulled in at the lesser known Faxifoss or Horse Mane Waterfall where not even Inga had been before. What delighted me most though wasn’t the waterfall but the snow fall that started the moment we stepped off the bus and continued to our next unscheduled stop at Kerið – a red volcanic crater containing an aquamarine lake in fresh white snow!!! Apparently Bjork once performed a concert from a raft in the lake – talk about ’emotional landscape’, I was so overwhelmed and excited that I could’ve puked! Mum watched on from the bus while Bec and I danced around in the snow.
Growing up in the hot outer suburbs of Sydney, ‘snow’ was as fanciful a notion as ‘volcanoes’ or a place called ‘Iceland’ and yet whenever I see snow fall, I feel the infantile joy of a five year old. Having my big sister with me who, with a look, I could tell was experiencing the same sense of wonder, made the moment infinitely more magical.
The snow continued to fall apace. We drove on in driving snow and watched the world turn white as we went. By the time we reached Skálholt, the ancient seat of the church in Iceland, the snow had lightened to few rogue flakes. We had a look around the cathedral and the smaller adjoining grass chapel before hopping back aboard to thaw out again. Just when we were almost out of steam, we arrived at a place full of it – our last stop – the Hellisheiði Power Station which is the largest geothermal power station in Iceland and the world. It is impressive by any standard but especially in the almost imperceptible carbon footprint in allows Iceland to make.
The sun set as we made our way back to Reykjavik with our tireless guide still keeping us thoroughly informed and entertained. Throughout the day, she regaled us with stories tall and true from Iceland’s colourful past through to its impressive modern day status as the best country for gender equality in politics, education, employment and health. With every fact and figure she quoted, I fell more in love with this Utopia. We even had a fairytale about the Ptarmigan read to us as we made our final approach. But it was no bedtime story, not by a long shot! The night was just getting started!
We were dropped back at our hotel with just enough time to put on our fancy new Icelandic wool outfits (Mum and I anyway, Bec hasn’t had a chance to get one yet) and make our way down to the harbour to a secret location for The World’s Largest Secret Supper hosted my Inspired by Iceland! As mentioned in an earlier entry, this week is the annual Food and Fun Festival and we were ready for a big dose of both! Inga had worked her magic to secure us highly sought after tickets to the event alongside the who’s who of the Reykjavik and International cuisine-scenes. I’d like to think we were flying the flag for Sydney and it’s multi-award winning restaurants, Bodega and Porteno, as a matter of both family and national pride.
You know, I don’t even know exactly where we were other than by the old harbour but it was decked out in a nautical theme and filled with an air of excitement. We were each given a number at the door on a card with a quote that translated as “The cabbage has not yet been sipped even though it is in the ladle” which apparently means “even though you have started something, you haven’t finished until you are finished” which in turn apparently meant that we were being split up! Luckily Mum and Bec were seated together whilst Inga and I
were way over the other side on the same table but at different ends. Despite our initial trepidation, it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened in terms of meeting other people and each having a unique and rewarding experience.
I was seated opposite the hip and hairy Davið aka Food Pervert, food blogger from Reykjavik whose bushy hipster beard makes far more sense in the context of his viking features and an Icelandic winter as opposed to the many roaming free in the heat of Sydney’s summer. Of course his English was absolutely perfect as was Olof Yrr Atlandottir’s – Director General of the Icelandic Tourist Board, seated to my right. Opposite her was Bragi G. Bragason (as henceforth I will call all who brag in my presence!) from First Class Iceland (in fairness, he does have a lot to brag about as a tourism operator in Iceland!). Wedged between Bragi and Davið there was a young journalist whose name escapes me and whom quickly became the butt of good natured teasing for his youthful ignorance and naivety.
Once the 200+ of us were seated, the event was officially launched by Einar Örn Benediktsson, head of Reykjavik’s Department of Culture and Tourism and former member of Icelandic post-punk band The Sugarcubes. His welcome speech consisted mainly of shouting at people to “shut the f*ck up!” I’ve written a few speeches in my time and this made every one of them seem a little lack lustre.
Without further adieu, dinner was served. The first course was salted cod and icelandic prawns followed by a main of grilled leg of lamb. I was a little embarrassed to admit to my new friends that I was vegetarian considering I managed to nab a ticket to be at one of the foodiest events of the season. Without the slightest hint of judgement, they all swung into action on my behalf to ensure my plate was full to overflowing with all manner of delicious salads and delectable roasted vegetables – more than I could hope to eat in a single sitting.
The wine and conversation flowed generously. Although business cards were exchanged and networks were built upon, the overall atmosphere was undoubtedly one of fun and hospitality. The entertainment was as ecclectic as the company including a rock performance, a mens choir and a rousing sing-along rendition of “Icelandic Cowboy” (luckily the lyrics were printed on the back of the menu for we out-of-towners).
The night seemed to fly by and end too soon despite the length of the day. Even jet-lagged Bec and sickie-bickie Mum were still too hyped up to call it a night so the four of us reconvened at the trendy Reykjavik Marina Hotel for a round of Reyka vodka, lime and sodas. Mum and Bec hit the road after that whilst Inga and I stayed on to further deplete the bar’s vodka stocks one round at a time, each leading to a deeper, darker level of conversation. By the time they called last orders and the lights came on, it’s fair to say our friendship was well and truly consolidated (and liquidated!).
I walked Inga to a cab before continuing up the main drag towards my hotel to find the rúntur in full swing. The rúntur is basically a pub crawl that takes place every Friday and Saturday night along the main street, Laugavegur. Generally speaking, people drink at home until midnight and then fill the bars and clubs along the main strip which, by day, live double lives as more demure cafes. As I headed up the hill, rugged up against the cold and the crowds that seemed impervious to it, to my surprise I heard someone shout out “Hey, Patches!” in an unmistakably Australian accent – it was Tara! She was out with a friend and if I’d had an ounce of energy left, I would have joined them but I was done like the dinner that had done it to me!
I crawled into the apartment and straight into bed. My phone says it’s almost 3am! Must sleepzzzzzzzzz
Patches McMum: Our Golden Circle day started quite early after our late night. We went to the Thingvellir National Park where parliament started in Iceland. We saw the most amazing waterfalls, glaciers and glacier fed streams, we walked in the space between the earths tectonic plates, we saw geysers, boiling running hot water and ice on the ground that crunched when you walked across it (without falling over too which was a miracle). What impressed me was the landscape and the wonderful folk lore (including the story of the ‘axe in the river’ which got there when a troll, who was known for eating tourists, was attacked by the locals who axed him in the back. The Troll removed the axe and threw it in the river, hence the name of the river). We also had a beaut lunch at a travel centre with the best meat-soup in Iceland.
At night we headed off to the worlds biggest secret supper. We were allocated seats apart from each other but I was near Bec. My biggest fear was that I’d be seated next to a young man who could only speak Icelandic so mentally I was brushing up on my charades. But luckily he spoke perfect english and wanted to know all about Australia so I was fine. The supper was wonderful, beautiful presentation – the NZ think they have the best lamb, the Icelandic people think they have but we know we do! The food was absolutely melt in your mouth beautiful. The Icelandic Men’s Choir reminded me of The Sound of Music with its old world charm. The people we sat with were very charming, friendly and we had wonderful conversations about work, life etc.
We taxied the to the Hotel Marina and sampled some Reyka Vodka. Becky and I got a taxi home and left Naomi drinking again with Inga. Good night, another beaut day in Iceland!
Pretty Patches: After a 40+ hour day all I needed was a good sleep in to get the weekend off to a great start. Unfortunately today was not going to be that day. Naomi had a day planned full of adventure that meant dragging my tired body out of a very comfortable bed, putting every piece of clothing I packed back on and facing a very early and very cold morning. Today we were doing the Golden Circle tour, I was pretty sure I was going to sleep through most of it but I’m sure from all that Naomi has written you can see how that wasn’t possible.
Today was an amazing day touring a place unlike any other I have ever seen, we were more than expertly guided through the country side while being educated on the history of Iceland and some bloke called Denis King, he had a staring role in the tales we were being told. I later learnt that Denis was actually the Danish King, which makes a lot more sense.
Naomi has more than described our fantastic day, for me I loved the landscape, the frozen puddles of water and of course being snowed on all of which is endlessly amusing for 3 Australians who only need a jacket or a jumper for a few months of the year.
If the day wasn’t amazing enough, Inga somehow managed to get us into the World’s Largest Supper Club, people were randomly seated but mum & I still ended up on the same table. It was a great way to meet some locals and to learn more about the culture and history of Iceland, they have great tales and a truly unique perspective. I’ll never tire of asking Icelandic people about elves and fairies, everyone I’ve asked “do you believe in elves and fairies?” simply replied “sure, why not”. I figured more people proudly believe in a higher power and the majority of cultures accept this so why not elves or fairies.
A much as I wanted to stay out and enjoy the famous nightlife of Iceland, I was exhausted so mum & I called it a night after one after-dinner cocktail and left Naomi & Inga to enjoy the night for