Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Who in their right mind would go to Iceland in December? That is the reaction I received when I told folks Carol and I are going to Iceland. The name Iceland, itself spells out lots of cold, snow, ice and inhospitable weather, (actually Iceland was warmer than Toronto for the week we were there) and Iceland is so far away from the norm of most people. Sure Iceland has beaches and lagoons but those places are not for the faint hearted I heard. People talk a lot and tell you all kinds of stories but I found that most of the time, those places that are ‘shunned’ are the most interesting, the most different, and the best places to visit. We did not go by motorcycle this time, however.

Carol wanted to see the Northern lights and winter is the best time of year to do that. We booked a 6 day, 5 night trip to make sure we got to see that light show when they advertised a sale on Travel Zoo and all in all it worked out fine for us. Carol even found an app to see the daily predictions for when and where the light show is most likely at its best.  

It is a bit of a cookie cutter trip and I am not used to being herded since most times I travel independently and like it my way best, but for this short duration, having a booked tour was just fine.
We flew from Toronto to Reykjavik non-stop and the airline the travel company used was WOW Airlines. I never heard of them before but yes, there is a WOW airline. 

We each had a Bag This Size But we Stuffed Our Pockets
I call this airline a bus that flies. You get a seat and that is it. We had a severe limit on luggage unless we wanted to pay extra, which I refused to do. The airline checked the carry-on bags for each passenger before boarding and strictly enforced their size and weight limits. During the 5 hour flight there was food service, but one had to buy the food. Even water was not given out free of charge. Everything extra, besides the basic seat, was an up-charge. I seem to have been spoiled while flying. It truly was a glorified bus fare we paid for. The plane was almost totally full and we were lucky to have had good seats.

On the return flight we had to ask for better seats (we were first assigned seats several rows apart) and then were given the emergency exit row. Carol was stuck in the middle but that was really the best we could get. Would I fly WOW again?  Only if there was no other way to get there.

We landed at 4 AM local time in Reykjavik due to the 5 hour time change between Toronto and Iceland. Something we did not pay attention to when we first booked. After we arrived at the hotel we were told our room would not be ready until 3 PM the same day. That was a wait of 11 hours! We were sitting in the lobby, nodding off to sleep from exhaustion.  That was bad planning from us and from the Travel Agent. I guess nobody thought of it, since the booking agent was in London and for London there is no time difference after the flight, same time zone for British folks. And British folks do not land at 4 AM. Carol and I did not like this predicament a bit, and yet? What is there to do?
Trying to Stay Awake Until Our Room is Ready

At noon, the management of the hotel found a room for us and we crashed and slept for a few hours. We had our first Northern Lights tour booked for the day of arrival but luckily this tour was cancelled because it rained heavily. There were so many clouds. There was no chance to see the light show. We slept soundly that first night.

What I found profoundly different was the way a day is structured in an Icelandic winter. Dawn does not happen until about 11 AM. And then dusk starts again at around 3 or 4 PM. The rest of the day is dark! So you wake up at let’s say 8 am and it’s pitch dark outside. Do you get up? Or do you sleep in a bit?  Until what time do you sleep?  10 AM? Icelanders start work at 9 am like the rest of the world but I found it difficult to adjust to the loss of daylight; both ways, in the am and pm.
Our Hotel

For the first full day we were on our own and we elected to visit Reykjavik proper taking the local bus that stopped next to the hotel. We are getting really good at taking local buses in strange towns. Our hotel was near the harbor and was called Hafnarfjordur and Icelandic names are a tongue breaker. Even for me, who speaks German, Old Icelandic is difficult on the ears. But when I break ii down, Hafnar = Hafen and Fjordur = Fjord then it makes more sense to me.  Instinctively I try immediately to learn the language. This happens to me at any place we stay for a while. We managed well since most people in Iceland speak English. You would think that English was their main language that’s how good most are speaking it. So getting around, asking questions, and finding your way was no problem at all.

On the second day, we visited the National Museum.   This was an excellent stop because it showed us when people
Very Heavy Chain Mail
immigrated to Iceland, how things started and developed. Iceland’s heritage is well known, documented and researched. It was a perfect beginning to get this starting version of the Island Nation. Not to be preaching but it is worthwhile to learn more about Iceland and its spot in the world by reading this.
Actual Size of Their Ships

At 7.30 pm on the same day we had a bus come to the Hotel to pick us up for the trip to see the Northern lights. It’s the typical tourist thing where the bus collects people from various hotels and then takes them to the ‘spot’ where it is perfectly dark and the visibility is good to watch the ‘light’ show. So we arrived at the shore of a bay, with a darkened lighthouse and waited for the clouds to disappear. About another 10 buses full of people collected in the same spot. People were gawking about, the one small bathroom was over crowed (one stall was broken) and people stood and waited. And waited! The clouds did not move on, they just sat there, teasing everybody. At about 9.30 pm, we left this spot to move via bus to another spot near another bay. Naturally, so did all the other buses too. The new spot was near an old church with a largish cemetery around the building. Some graves were
Graveyard Lights
decorated with lit crosses or ornaments in honor of Christmas, I believe. I had never seen this before; it must be a Nordic way of adding the deceased to the Christmas cheer.

Again, we waited for the clouds to move on, to give us a clear view of the sky, of the stars, of the lights that swirl around the heavens. We waited………until about midnight and even a little later……nothing!
Everybody was a bit gloomy, this was not supposed to be like that, we live in a push button society and we could not push a button to make the clouds go away……. Shucks, all
this effort for nothing? Yep, nature did not co-operate, no Northern Lights……we have to do this again some other time. Maybe we will go again tomorrow?
An Old Church

No, we could not do it then, because we had also booked the "Golden Circle Tour”, where a bus picks you up at the hotel in the morning and takes you into some of the interior of the island. We were ready and the camera battery was loaded. Our bus guide spoke English perfectly and was also very proud of his Icelandic heritage. Only about 330,000 people make up the population of all of Iceland and half of these live in Reykjavik. Not a lot of people, really, yet they are very organized and very entrepreneurial. The Golden Circle
Walking Through the Rift on a Rainy Day
 Tour was well thought out and is definitely worth taking. We learned about and were shown where the American and European Tectonic plates meet. These plates are moving in opposite directions causing a monumental rift that is still very active and is the heart of Iceland. It still pulses and is a center of Icelandic pride. The rift opens up into a valley - Thingvellir National Park. The area is covered with fissures, cracks, gorges, rifts. It felt primeval looking, wild and raw. The people walking among the lava, rocks and boulders looked ant-like, small and disproportionate to the force nature displays.
The President's Summer Home
This Valley was where the first government of Iceland was formed in 930. The current President of Iceland has a summer ‘’cottage” built smack in the middle of the valley, but that is the only house visible. Visiting dignitaries stay here and have a special view of the land that is Iceland.
When sitting in the bus, the landscape looks barren and desolate and lonely. On foot it would be a huge chore to cross the lava fields, the hills, the meadows, the rivers and rivulets.

One of our stops was the GullfossWaterfall. In the early 20th Century, an English company
Gullfoss Waterfall
wanted to dam a river to create electricity but was stopped by the farmer’s daughter, who would rather kill herself than see this beauty spot defiled by something as mundane as a dam. This story today is part of Icelandic folklore.

On the circle tour is a Valley called Haukadalur, home of the geysir (sic). It is an eerie landscape full of sulfur smells and bubbling pots of mud and hissing hot water spots, overshadowed by heavy steam. A pathway wide enough for the hordes of tourists winds itself through the area. Still, the very hot temperatures of the water, the proximity of all
Bubbling Mud and Water
these strange sounds and sights make for an unusual experience. We traipsed through and over hot water rivulets to stand close to the geyser that erupts about every 10 minutes. Even knowing what is coming, when the hot water shot up into the air, instinctively I jumped back to protect myself. I was a safe distance away, yet……. Mother Nature shows us that we are very, very small and totally superfluous in her mind. Watch out for your footing when you are near or around the geysers.
Strokkur Geysir (sic)
The tour, including a lunch break, took all day. There was not enough time left to go on the Northern Light tour again. And………it rained, of course. Iceland receives about 8 times more rain in a year than Great Britain. Rain is almost constant and continues off and on in the winter. Icelanders say, if you do not like the weather in Iceland, wait a few minutes, it will change immediately. We had rain every day while we were in Iceland.

With all this water falling out of the sky, with all the snow melting, the ground is saturated with water. Bogs, mud puddles abound. The geysers never run out of ground water, it is constantly replenished by all the rains coming down. I believe that in the summer months it might be less rainy, but I cannot say for sure.  Iceland is a country where soil is still being made by erosion due to wind, water and decay. Iceland is like most of Earth was millions of years ago; Primeval to the point where man has no real influence on how the land behaves. All we can do is visit and stare at it in awe.

Icelanders have found a good balance, they do not fight nature; they just use it. Geothermal stations harness the power of the many underground volcanoes. Electricity and heating are produced via the geothermal activity. Iceland is independent of oil. Sure cars run on gasoline, but it is just a matter of time, already there are plenty of electric cars that find plenty of charging stations. Everybody has a cell phone, everybody has work, and everybody lives well and eats daily. Iceland is part of Europe, even if it is far removed from the mainland. Their housing and lifestyle seem to be modern and their clothing seems to be fashionable from what we could see in the two major cities that we visited. Public transport is being used; all stops are called out or displayed on signs, etc. Iceland works!

Icelandic Horse

On the way back from the Golden Circle Tour we stopped at a horse farm but it was dark already by the time we got there and all we could do was visit the horses in the barn. The Icelandic horse is pony sized and is a special breed left over from when the Norwegian or Danish Immigrants came to settle the area.
   It is not really related to the Shetland pony, but is a separate old breed from years ago. This particular stable we visited breeds horses for sale throughout the world and also lets you ride horses through their neighborhood, if you like, but….. It was too late to do that.

Icelandic Horse
We could not ride the horses but, what we could do, though; take another tour to find the Northern Lights. It was said that the next day would be cloudless so we booked ourselves on the bus again. But when we came to the lobby the following night, there was a swarm of people waiting for the bus. I am not a crowd lover, I always feel like cattle when I see all those people lined up to do something. Carol knows it by now and we decided to forgo joining the hordes, no matter the cloudless sky.
As it turned out, there were clouds that night also so this outing was a bummer, too.

It’s not that easy finding the Northern Lights, no matter the web pages, the ready cameras and the time of year. Carol however is determined; she has this stick-to-itiveness that sometimes awes me. She made sure we got another attempt on the last
Aurora Borealis - Awesome
night of our time in Iceland and sure enough, this time the sky is clear and the stars sparkle, but where are the Northern Lights?  Even though we have clear sky it is a waiting game. After hours of patiently biding our time there it is. A slow building of an arc-like light source that, when photographed shows up in green. I had to laugh, though, my cheap camera, in the total dark, did not capture any lights whatsoever. I looked through the screen finder and all I saw was pitch black. All this waiting and I had no pictures. Leave it to Carol, though, she has a better camera and her shots were a lot better. We were at the same light house location when we saw the light show, even with the same slew of buses and all the people but that is part of the norm, I guess. To find an isolated, dark beach with a clear spot to show the Northern Lights one has to probably rent a car and head out into the unknown on your own. I am glad we finally got the shot Carol so wanted and to see this phenomenon in real time. It is one of the Earth’s wonders to see, I guess we’re lucky, because 5 minutes after the first sighting of the lights, the weather changed again, clouds moved in, and it even started to rain in buckets. But by that time we were back on the bus, returning to our hotel.

The Blue Lagoon

On our last day our schedule called for a visit to the famous ‘’ Blue Lagoon “. We packed our bathing suits and headed out, again by bus, after being picked up at the hotel. Now I know there are crowds at the Lagoon and I was not disappointed. A snake of people wound around the entrance dividers but on the whole the masses moved along. Finding a changing room or a locker was a bit of a challenge. I waited a bit, and then found a spot. Everything is modern and electronic. You wear an armband that unlocks, and locks your locker and opens the doors throughout the spa. You can even order a drink or lunch using this fob that you wear on your wrist,
Carol With The Mud Pack On
like a watch. Iceland is modern. Remember, Iceland is well advanced in electronics. The Blue Lagoon is a well-choreographed place in every detail. TV monitors tell you to wash thoroughly, even your hair and to leave the conditioner on in the Lagoon. The minerals in the 100 F water are so strong they will make your hair unmanageable without the conditioner. The transition from the showers to the actual lagoon happens quickly, the air is so cool (cold) that you rush to get into the hot water. The water in the lagoon is milky with a blue tint to it. Four million gallons of thermally heated mineral ground water is mixed with colder sea water. The result is what you bathe
Hans With The Mud Pack On
in. All of the water in the lagoon is exchanged every 40 hours. The place is large; it does not seem crowded once we were in the water. We even added a scouring agent to our faces (mud pack) to take full advantage of this therapeutic treatment. Yes, we looked beautiful! But so did everybody else. Smart as the Icelanders are, there is a pool side bar. You can have your drinks while being in the water. We had a health drink but most drank beer or stronger stuff. You pay with your armband fob, which is linked to your credit card. We noticed that the lifeguards throughout the installations wore winter gear. They wore full overcoats, hats, gloves and heavy boots. It is only warm and
Lifeguard Dressed Warmly and with a Reflective Vest
cozy within the water, if you have to walk or stand around away from it, it’s cold and windy and wintry. We were aglow when we came out of the lagoon’s waters after about 40 minutes. We showered again, got dressed but moved slower, relaxed actually. The minerals in the water sure did their thing. Once back at the hotel we even needed a nap. We felt wonderful, at ease and one with the world. I wish they had this kind of spa in our neighborhood in Toronto.

Red Faces After our Swim and Mud Pack Treatment
Iceland, a great spot to visit! Yes, I would go to Iceland again, but this time not on a tour, finding a hotel when we could, travelling via bike if possible. I would go in the summer, travel all around the total Island and crawl into every crevice, glacier, volcano where they allow a visit. Sure it can be touristy but then, we are a crowded planet now, even Iceland is not the end of the world but it comes close to being the beginning. At least one can see how it all started when our planet developed a land mass. Iceland gives you a clue how it was then………because in Iceland land is still being made daily, with volcanoes spitting out lava that turn the sea into land.

Most of the Landscape is Lava Rock and Barren
One particular thought lingered in my mind, though. Iceland has no animals. No deer, no wild life. A fox here and there is the only predator, living exclusively off birds or small vermin. The horses the immigrants brought are there, sure. And there are, it is said to be, a few reindeer in or around the center of the island, but no wildlife. No, I was told, we don’t want to import wild life, we want to keep Iceland the way it was when we found it. I admire that. There are no front lawns, there are just a few largish trees near the coast, and the Island looks different because it has been left unchanged. Good or bad, Iceland is a wild county, a living example of living on the edge; on the edge of the European/American Tectonic plates. I like Iceland. 

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