20 Mar 2016

Iceland #10 - Day 1: Playing Tour Guide on the Reykjanes Peninsula

My tenth trip to Iceland was slightly different from my usual trips - I was actually going with other people! Having seen endless of my photos of the place, my friends Scott and Bryon were keen to visit, so I managed to organise a trip combining three days with them (and my hubby Murray) doing the usual tourist stuff - and a bit more - before I headed off east to do photography stuff on my own. Being tour guide put a little pressure on me, and I desperately wanted everything to go well, a lot of which was dependent on the weather. The forecast was good, as was the outlook for the northern lights, but I know better than to trust either...

We flew in late on a Wednesday night. I managed to see some northern lights from my spot in the middle of the plane, but the boys sat behind and the light from the wing made it harder to see. I sat next to a lovely couple and gave them some recommendations for their trip. We stayed at the airport hotel, meaning that a trip to the Blue Lagoon the following day was easy. We had a couple of Icelandic beers in our room before a relatively early night.

First stop the next day was a tour around the Reykjanes Peninsula - unfortunately I'd booked tickets to the Blue Lagoon too late to get morning tickets, and had booked for 1pm, so decided on a drive around the Peninsula to kill some time (and there's some nice scenery to see). The weather was glorious as I picked up the rental car (a Suzuki Vitara again) from Procar and set off towards Garður to show the boys the cool lighthouses. The light was wonderful intermittently, as the sun came out and disappeared again. As soon as we set off Murray checked out the car's music equipment and we ascertained that there was nowhere for me to plug in my iPod. I felt panicky and couldn't imagine another Icelandic road-trip without my own music. After having had one such trip, desperately searching for music that wasn't Katy Perry or Adele (sorry, I just don't like her!), or crackly Icelandic talking on Bygljan, I knew I couldn't bear another. After visiting the lighthouses I stopped back at the car-hire place, explained that I couldn't possibly survive a week on my own without my own music and they gladly swapped the car for another Vitara (a later model and the same type as the previous one I'd hired from them, with a reversing camera and most importantly a USB port for my iPod). I'd be able to sing along (and cry) to David Bowie songs on my own after all.

Panic out of the way, we headed along the road towards Reykjavík, turning off south after a while towards Kleifarvatn. The tarmac road ran out and the slightly-potholed gravelled surface soon became snowy as we headed uphill towards the lake. The sun was intense, reflecting on the snow and ice making visibility a little challenging from time to time (actually I couldn't see a thing!) - especially when approaching a blindhæd (blind rise). We arrived at an overlook above the lake, which was completely frozen, and got out to take a few photos. Iceland looked lovely: the sun was shining, it wasn't that cold and there was no wind. The boys were impressed; it was going well.

We continued on and I pulled in at Seltún, which I'd visited a few years earlier on a miserably grey day and hadn't been massively impressed with. It was the same as I'd remembered, but looked better with a bit of snow and sunshine, which was becoming more hazy as the morning went on. Pools bubbled away and steam hissed or seeped out of yellow and orange crusty, sulphurous vents.

Time was ticking on and so we headed on south and drove west along the coast for a while along an empty stretch of road, before heading north again at Grindavík. The Blue Lagoon (Bláa lóniðwas a short drive outside the town, along a road winding through the lava field. The steam from the plant was hidden by a large hill, but eventually it loomed into view, together with the cranes above the lagoon, as they're building a new hotel there. The car-park was packed, as expected, and we walked along a lava-sided pathway before arriving at the entrance, where we joined the end of a massive queue. It moved pretty quickly and we were soon at the counter, getting a wristband that acted as a locker key and tab for any expenditure while we were there (eg. drinks at the bar). We went off to our separate changing rooms, figured out how to use the lockers, showered (I'd read that you had to shower nude before entering the lagoon, but there's not exactly anyone there making you do so, and they do have private shower cubicles for the shy), and then headed out in the freezing cold air before plunging into the steamy water. As instructed I'd lathered my hair with conditioner and had it up in a clip - apparently if it touches the water and isn't conditioned it ends up like straw; my hair is already pretty straw-like, so I didn't need it to get any worse.

The lagoon was pretty packed, but not horribly so. I'd visited on my first trip to Iceland back in October 2002 with a friend and we'd more-or-less had the place almost to ourselves (there weren't many off-season visitors to Iceland back in 2002, unlike today...). We'd visited on a cold, wet, stormy night, but I remembered how lovely it was once you were in, as it was today.

We waded through the warm green water (it wasn't blue without sun, which was now hidden behind overcast clouds), steam blowing across the surface, and headed to the face mask bar. Occasionally we would walk through a hot patch and someone would make a joke about it being where someone had just peed. Nice! An English guy was working there, advising us on how long to leave the white cleansing mask on for (10 minutes); the hard white sludge was kept in buckets and you could apply it liberally. We then waded across to the drinks bar, on the other side of the lagoon, and got our first drink (included in the €55 package) - I had a miniature bottle of Prosecco, the boys had pints of Gull lager. It was a strange experience, to be standing in lovely warm water, holding plastic glasses of booze, faces covered with a white mask of sulphurous mud (or whatever it is). I don't think there had been an outdoor bar the previous time I'd visited.

We wandered around a bit, washed off the first mask, then returned to get the green moisturising mask (this was kept behind the counter and you were only given a small amount). Once it was ready to wash off, 15 minutes later, we went into the steam room for a short while. I always get really bored in steam rooms or saunas and only lasted about 5 minutes, heading back into the warm water with Bryon. The others eventually came out and we headed back to the bar. As I was driving later I then had a delicious blueberry Skyr smoothie; the boys had another weak beer. We then headed away from the crowds, under one of the bridges (there was a security guard in hi-viz jacket on the top of each bridge) to an area with almost no-one. It actually felt quite peaceful and remote. Our fingers all resembled alien beings by now - wrinkled beyond recognition.

Eventually we headed inside to shower (rinsing out the conditioner to find my hair hadn't been ruined, thankfully), and got dressed (I went into the wrong changing-room and couldn't get my bearings - had to go upstairs to find my locker). We then sat and had a sandwich in the café at the side of the lagoon (indoors) and relaxed for a while. We took our cameras outside to capture a few shots of the place. I bumped into the couple from the plane - it's a small tourist circuit, obviously. Then we headed off towards Álftanes, where Sigrún and Johannes were expecting us for coffee and waffles at 5pm. It hadn't been a cheap way to spend an afternoon, but we all thoroughly enjoyed our visit - you can't really visit Iceland without going there.

We arrived in Álftanes a little early, and Sigrún was busy in the kitchen glazing a banana cake and finishing off the waffle mixture. She'd put on a massive spread for us, and it was great for the boys to see inside an Icelandic family home (especially one with such delicious treats and coffee on offer!). Murray and I unpacked the goodies we'd ordered on Amazon at half the price they would've paid for the same things in Iceland, and I picked up their tripod, Aeropress and massive mug, which I'd also borrowed on the previous trip. I was very exctied to meet a new addition to their family - an absolutely adorable 4-month-old grey stripey kitten, Jökull (which means glacier). I'm not sure I've ever been so smitten by a cat or kitten before. He was so affectionate and beautiful and won everyone's hearts by curling up in an open drawer of tea-towels. Their daughter was clearly also smitten too.

Once we were totally stuffed we headed off into the centre of Reykjavík, where I'd booked us a 2-bed apartment near the centre of the town. We stopped off for me to do my "weekly shop" for my trip after they had gone, at a nearby Hagkaup store. We arrived easily, but then got caught in the one-way system - if you've ever driven in central Reykjavík you'll know that this isn't an easy predicament to find yourself in. We'd found the apartment but couldn't find anywhere to park, so wanted to just drive round the block to get back to the front of the building. This was easier said than done, and it took us about ten minutes to get back there. In the end, we got back and then had to drive round to another street behind the house that we'd passed at least twice, where we were able to park off-road in a private parking space and unload the car. The Ambassade Apartments were in an old traditional Icelandic building, and had recently been converted into apartments, and were stunning. The man who managed the property was extremely friendly and showed us around the well-equipped and beautifully decorated place. The only downside was that there was a shelving unit holding the TV and some glasses that had a couple of sharp corners protruding - it was only a matter of time before one of us bashed into them...

Sigrún had recommended (and booked) a restaurant for us in the city centre (Grillmarkaðurinn) and we had a couple of drinks at home before heading down there (in spite of the apartment appearing to have everything, we couldn't find any water glasses - despite each of us looking through every single cupboard (and the dishwasher, the oven, the microwave, etc.) three times each! - beer was drunk out of wine glasses, which were easy to find). The restaurant was an excellent recommendation - both a very cool space and delicious food. Between us we ordered a couple of meat platters, a fish platter and Scott ordered the langoustine tails, which quite frankly were one of the most delicious things any of us had ever eaten! The food was washed down by a couple of Borg beers (I was in heaven).

After dinner we headed to the Micro Bar, one of the three recommended craft beer bars. We met a rather drunk young Scottish lad called Jimmy who was on holiday with his parents and was rather smitten with Murray's mysterious accent. I tried a couple of delicious porters and stouts which were on tap (my favourite tipple at the moment), before we headed to the Skuli bar, which had opened recently, with rave reviews. It was a Thursday night and it closed at 11pm, just as we arrived, so we continued on the Mikkeller bar, a great little spot spread over the top floor of an old building above a pizza restaurant. They were open a while and we tried a couple more Icelandic beers there before heading home. We had a little nightcap before going to bed, with my suggestion of Jägermeister and milk not going down too well (if you didn't know what it was I think it would have been quite nice). Just before going to sleep I went out of the room to look for a phone charger and was the one to take a big tumble after catching my foot against the protruding corner. Usually I fall over or bash into an iceberg on these trips which results in a bruise or two, but this time I had a small gash on my arm and two large bruises on my knees to show for it - an identified and very annoying drunken injury.

Click here for blog from Day 2: Tour Guide around the Golden Circle

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