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The Blog is Born

As a year of marriage starts to dawn upon me, I find myself considering which moments have given me greatest joy. Lazy Sunday lie-ins, home cooked meals, the eager anticipation I still get when hubby walks in from work. True – I am grateful for these small treasures. But I am also mindful of this – we are Londoners in our thirties. We are young (in our minds anyway). Hubby (or pumpkin as he will be endearingly referred to from hereon) had the travel bug long before I walked into his life and after a year of wedded bliss, it seems I am well and truly infected too.south coast excursion black lava sandYes, I think he would agree that our travels have highlighted our year. And as he opts to spend our 3 hour flight home watching Skyfall (again) rather than listening to my yapping, I hope you will forgive me for sharing my travels with you.

Disclaimer – I suspect when the cash runs out, I shall have fewer tales to tell and therefore I make no guarantees that this won’t one day turn into a series of musings about eating cake, baking cake and “suburban” life in zone 3.Sun Voyager Monument Iceland

Exploring Iceland

Iceland was an easy choice of destination for our short-haul trip. Pumpkin had been 7 years ago but his experience was short-lived after being beckoned home for an important interview almost immediately after landing in Reykjavik! So the dilemma was the season – winter may afford the very fortunate a glimpse of the spectacular Aurora Borealis and has the cold, dark, Narnia-like magic that cannot be replicated in the summer. But….rather like when I am hungry, I am reliably informed that I get cranky when cold. This, combined with more daylight hours to see the country with made it a quick decision. We’ll have to chase the Northern Lights another time.

I have always wanted to visit Iceland and so after a timely, fairly non-descript Icelandair flight, we arrive. The weather was much the same as a British winter but with sunshine and blue skies – so actually, nothing like the British winter. Layers are the key to packing for Iceland. You don’t need a case full of new clothes – just a stack of your existing ones. TAKE A RAINCOAT.

The Hilton Nordica Reykjavik

We spent 4 nights at the Hilton Nordica, a comfortable and clean hotel about a 20 minute walk from the main city. They also kindly provide a pass for free access on local buses into the city. The staff were friendly and courteous – help was given when requested and there was no further intrusion or input than was sought out. We had no complaints. There is a lovely bar downstairs, which provides a nice backdrop for a night cap post-excursion – or a Swiss Mocha if like myself, you shy away from alcohol. It turns out a Swiss Mocha is sadly just a Mocha. Breakfast is fabulous with a predictable but undeniable selection of usual treats including sausages and eggs, indulgently creamy porridge with a huge range of toppings, pastries, cold cuts and my personal favourite – pancakes/waffles with peanut butter and Nutella – this combination seems to be huge in Iceland – and I for one have no complaints.Iceland Geysir Golden Circle

The Golden Circle Tour

If you only do one tour in Iceland, it is likely to be the Golden Circle tour – an all day excursion encompassing Iceland’s most famous and breath taking Gullfoss Waterfalls (meaning Golden Falls), the eponymously named Geysir and Stokkur geysers and the Thingvellir National Park. It is not a “park” in the way that you and I might expect.  But I suppose that shows my traveller’s naivety of assuming parks to be green, lush and covered in flowers. No – Thingvellir is a truly unspoiled, rugged, spectacular sight – it will be unlike any other park you have ever seen with vast sparse landscape and endless space.

You have the opportunity to stand across 2 tectonic plates and are reminded repeatedly by guides that you have one foot in America and one foot in Europe – I’ll be frank and admit that I was not entirely swept up in this theory and in my mind, I always felt both my feet were in Iceland…..but I never did geography past GCSE and I’m sure those of you who did would feel a greater affinity towards standing on these continental margins.rainbow IcelandThe geyser shoots out from the ground unpredictably every 10 minutes or so – there is a ring of tourists surrounding it, eyes on the prize and index finger at the ready – I was one of them. I think this ruins it really – we stayed for at least 7-8 “squirts” (the word does not do it justice) but my tip would be to step back from the tourist circle – you get a much better view of the natural fountain and will have plenty of opportunity for photographs later.

Chasing Icelandic Rainbows

I’ve never particularly had a bucket list in life – I got asked this a lot when I turned 30. There was also an embarrassing round of Mr and Mrs at the annual cottage weekend with friends this year, where Pumpkin had to name my greatest ambition…..after some awkward stuttering, staring at me bemusedly and a cheeky “you got married too soon” shout-out from the audience, turns out he didn’t know – which is entirely forgivable seeing as I don’t know either. But what he does know is that there are a few serendipitous moments that I have always dreamt of. Call me a sap, call me a hopeless romantic (and pumpkin calls me both) but it has been a life’s longing to see a perfect rainbow – and in Iceland, I saw 7. And I saw them immersed among waterfalls. I didn’t even realise I had a bucket list till I saw these.Iceland waterfall rainbow

Lounging in the Blue Lagoon & Watching whales

We separated 2 days of excursions with a day of relaxation, which involved an exhilarating morning whale and dolphin watching and an afternoon at the Blue Lagoon. The whale watching is essentially safari on a boat –the same feeling of concentrated peering and the excitement you are rewarded with when you spot something. You are given snowsuits and Pumpkin was the only person on the boat who seemed to think he could thermo-regulate without one – he soon learned. views whale watching ReykjavikWith the whales, we mostly saw fins and contours but we were blessed to have seen dolphins jumping playfully in and out of the water, creating elegant synchronised splashes – what is it about these creatures that makes them just so magical?? Our lovely German guide, a marine biology PhD student, was warm-hearted, knowledgeable and I particularly appreciate the fact that they make no special gestures to try and attract the whales and dolphins. You are taken to where the guides expect to find them and they look out for clues but you see what you see and there is nothing zoo-esque about it.

One hot dog later (read on for details) and we were off to spend a dry sunny, lazy afternoon at the Blue Lagoon – you don’t really need more than 2 -3 hours here, unless you have planned massages and treatments – you pay a premium for these services and we chose not to but you float on water while they are carried out and as far as novelty value goes, you may decide it is worth it.

Word of caution about the tour – check with your tour operator prior to booking whether their prices include the entry fee – we were slightly dismayed to find we had to pay separately to enter the lagoon having already booked the excursion but it had been there all along in the fine print. Robes, slippers and towels are all available for hire and free lockers are plentiful for your valuables. You do not need to be able to swim for this trip – the waters are shallow and if you can get into a bathtub at home, then you can visit the lagoon.

Iceland scenery

Iceland’s rugged, stunning scenery

One thing I will say, however, is that this is not a place for those with a shy disposition. After a near panic attack when hearing that we are expected to shower nude before entering the lagoon in none other than a public shower, I proclaimed definitively that despite my wishes, I would have no part in this excursion – pumpkin would have to enjoy the trip while I sit in a café, reading a book for 3 hours. A few Google searches later (what did we ever do before free wifi) and pumpkin reassures me private shower cubicles are present – indeed they are but you still have to walk out of them into the changing area with little to none on. I don’t think anyone other than myself was actually bothered so if you can get past your own self-consciousness or you are fortunate enough not to be self-conscious, you will be fine. Basically, when in Rome, do as the Romans do and when in Iceland, be prepared to be nude.

What follows is tranquil warm, blue, clear, water, free face mask dispensers perched along the sides and an utterly relaxing, picturesque way to spend an afternoon. Remember your sun cream and keep hydrated but with a bar immersed in the lagoon serving all manner of slush puppies and Icelandic yoghurt smoothies, this will not be difficult. There is a limit on the number of alcoholic drinks you are permitted to have and once again, with my health professional’s cap on, I think this is entirely sensible! I was disappointed to hear that the waters aren’t actually natural but rather come from recycled waste water from the nearby geothermal plant but when the sun is beaming on your face with volcanoes in the distance and warm water on your back, you don’t much care.Blue Lagoon Iceland

Comparing Tour Companies in Iceland

There are many companies that provide very similar excursions in Iceland. We booked the holiday package through Icelandair, who use the Reykjavik excursions company. Itineraries were punctual, comprehensive and the guides were enthusiastic, clear and informative but at times, it did feel like getting on a bus ahead of a school trip. The company use coaches and can cater for large groups, providing pick-up and drop off services at various hotels around Reykjavik.

They run quite structured trips and they do what they say on the tin. For once in my life, I was on time getting on and off at various locations but for those of you maligned with tardy inclinations – be warned that one of the guides did not take kindly to passengers returning late. The Icelandic people are good at timekeeping it seems and it would serve you well to be respectful of that to avoid any public humiliation!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn comparison, though, we booked The South Coast excursion ourselves on the final day with Iceland Horizon Tours. Prices are comparable amongst most major tour operators but there was a slight discount being offered with Horizon Tours. This was an entirely different experience. The group consisted of only 5 of us in a small minibus and the driver doubled up as the guide. Any element of the day could be added in or taken off depending on the preferences of the group.

The astute spot of another small rainbow in a waterfall resulted in an impromptu stop and if she noticed any of us taking photographs through the van window, she kindly stopped and gave us the opportunity to step out. As a small group with a flexible and highly commendable guide, we had the freedom to spend as little or as much time in different locations and nothing was too much trouble. We were given longer than the scheduled tour time at no extra cost with the guide kindly telling us, “if you are in no hurry, I am in no hurry”.  My tip – book with Horizon Tours for a smaller, more personalised, less formal but truly professional tour.

The South Coast excursion is definitely the lesser travelled of the tours as compared to the Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon but it would be a travesty to miss this – the rock formations on the coast, the black lava stone beach of Reynisfjara, touching a glacier and an opportunity to walk behind a waterfall are not to be missed. You also get an opportunity to see the troublesome volcano that  caused so much disruption with its ash cloud in 2010 (and kept pumpkin and I apart for longer than planned in our early courtship) – we were shown a short home video made by a local family, which gave a moving and inspiring insight into how their livelihoods were affected.DSC_0473

Reykjavik’s Fine Food & Best Restaurants

No holiday chronicle would be complete without a reference to food; in fact for me, no day would be complete without a reference  to food. We were pleasantly surprised as to just how well the Icelandic people do food. Reykjavik has a fantastic selection of high calibre restaurants and our personal favourites had to be the Grillmarkadurinn who set a precedent for just how good simple grilled meat can be and Fishmarkadurrin, a heaven for fish lovers like myself. I opted for the unusual combination of salmon with parsnip, apple, fennel and a tantalising crispy fried lotus root but had my worst ever case of food envy after trying pumpkin’s pan fried blueling with coconut cream, barley, dates and soya peanut crumble.

And if that hasn’t already convinced you, then believe me when I say it’s worth a trip to Fish Market – indeed to Reykjavik – just to try their desserts, which I would rank in my all-time top 5 desserts (those who know me will know I have eaten a LOT of dessert)  I will let you make your own minds up about whether you wish to sample the local specialties of Minke whale and puffin but will pass on a reliable message from the locals that it is in fact tourists who are the driving force behind this industry, which is resulting in increasing rates of hunting of these species but the Icelandic people themselves rarely incorporate these meats into their regular diets. One final word about tips, the Icelandic people do not expect tips – so much so, that when I tried and insisted, I left waitresses looking rather perplexed. I will remain of the belief that it is nice to reward good service but they genuinely do not expect this and you can use your discretion entirely.

Fish Market restaurant Reykjavik

My most mixed review about food would have to be about the famous hot dog stand in central Reykjavik  Baejarins Beztu Pylsur – a place that has at some stage been given the accolade of “best hot dog in the world,” whose previous guests have included Bill Clinton and generates hefty queues on a daily basis. I’m not entirely sure what to say about a hot dog where my most favourite parts were the crispy onions and the condiments – but those bits were genuinely delicious and I would quite happily have eaten them alone sandwiched between 2 pieces of bread. The meat itself was nothing to write home about but I note from other reviews that the famous Icelandic hot dog seems to be an area of controversy and is certainly cheaper than most other meals in Iceland so try one out and make your own mind up.

Visit Iceland – it’s only a 3 hour flight from London so easily doable for a long weekend and will appeal to any age group, which was reflected in the variance that we noticed among our tour groups.  Language is no issue as absolutely everyone is fluent in English. Reykjavik city itself is fairly underwhelming. Highlights in the city, in no particular order, are (1) The soaring Hallsgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik will appeal to those with a preference for clean, linear minimalist architecture (2) the stunning sundial which, if you can wangle a clear day and a blue sky, makes for a picture perfect setting (3) The phallological – yes phallological museum. I was dragged to this kicking and screaming by Pumpkin who thought it would be “funny” with the condition that there would be no social medial “check ins” implicating me but actually, this turned out to be rather intriguing. It is a small museum with 1-2 rooms of animal “specimens” preserved in formalin, a must for anyone with an interest in biology, zoology  and I’m justifying my trip here as stemming from mine and pumpkin’s background in healthcare. Turns out that man does not fare so well compared to the many whales’ exhibits that we were privy too. You’ll pardon me for not having any photos to show you but this is a family friendly blog…

Reykjavik crepes Eldur Is ice cream Eldur Is Reykjavik

Iceland’s landscape is unlike anywhere else you will have seen but in simple terms, if you are not keen on nature, scenery and views, then this is not the place for you.  Take more money than you might expect for meals – Iceland is pricey but some of the Reykjavik restaurants serve world class cuisine and PLEASE PLEASE do not leave without trying a crepe from Eldur Is – I was recommended a “surprise crepe” after the staff noticed me still dithering 15 minutes later over their limitless menu of diabetogenic  goodies. What surfaced was an enormous but utterly moreish creation of a perfectly cooked thin crepe with fresh strawberries, bananas, Ferero Rocher and banoffee-flavoured ice creams, melt in the mouth tiny chunks of snickers, bounty and Daim topped off with Icelandic whipped cream, which is distinctly less sickly than its British counterpart. They served it with a dollop of excitement and pride and like myself, were so impressed with the result, that they themselves photographed it – which I found utterly endearing.

Part of the #SundayTraveler Link Up