Photographs by Mike Vickers, Jan Jones and Sharron Whetherly
Feature photo above: The Blue Lagoon, set in a lava field dotted with volcanoes next to a geothermal power station. Sounds like an insalubrious location. But it wasn’t.
We were up before the crack of dawn, 2.15am to be precise, a time rarely experienced by Jan and I nowadays, but the hour necessary to commence our journey to Iceland. That’s the country, not the store offering deals on Viennettas and frozen peas. This was a new destination for us, and required a change to our long-established policy of not knowingly paying good money to be cold. The clue’s in the name!
Our party assembled in Terminal 5 at Heathrow. I thought there were only ten of us on this adventure; Jan and I, Sharron and Chris, with their son James and partner Beth, Ken and Sue, and finally Paul and Karen, but to my delight and surprise, we were joined by Jan’s cousin, Sarah. This had been secretly arranged by Jan. Sarah has visited Iceland before and loved it, having once also had Icelandic pen friends when she was a girl.
The formalities are fully electronic nowadays. Just present your passport to the scanner and all is done, including baggage check and boarding card. We took off in the gloom of a foggy morning, but once above the clouds, the sun was, as always, shining. This is the reason pilots are the most heavily tanned professionals on the planet.
The flight duration was 3 hours 15 minutes. It’s a surprisingly long way, about the same distance as to Sofia in Bulgaria. Rarely do we ever fly in a northerly direction out of Britain, but as the clouds cleared, we enjoyed some stunning views of snowy Scottish mountains and remote coastlines. The clement weather stayed with us all the way to Keflavik and we landed in sunshine. It was a pale sun, admittedly, but sunny nonetheless and unexpectedly welcome.
A minibus took us into Reykjavik through a wintry, barren landscape with views of distant snow-capped cliffs and peaks. Green it was not. My first impression of central Reykjavik was a curious mixture of rather stately old corrugated iron houses, occasionally painted in cheerfully bright colours, mixed with some very modern funky skyscrapers.
The minibus pulled up near to the Skuggi Hotel and we had to walk the last hundred yards as buses are not allowed into the city centre. Our spacious room was warmed by under floor heating – there’s a lot of it about around here – thanks to more geothermal heating than you can shake a stick at, allowing many of the streets and pavements to be kept clear of winter ice. Yes, they actually heat the roads and pavements! Courtesy of Iceland’s hyperactive plate tectonics and all-round excitable close-to-the surface volcanism, this abundance of magma-fuelled free heat has been enthusiastically exploited by the locals, providing the country with plenty of clean and very cheap energy. More on that later.
Sarah, Jan and I stepped out to explore downtown Reykjavik, the first thing I noticed was the number of cars and even e-scooters running on studded tyres, which make a noise similar to driving on wet tarmac. At least you can hear them coming.
We fetched up at Svarta Kaffio, a bustling cafe that specialised in offering small round loaves hollowed out and filled with a welcoming and delicious thick soup. Everyone around us seemed to be in an excellent mood. Perhaps that was why there was a sex shop in the basement beneath the cafe. There was also a Goth bondage and fetish clothing shop nearby. I guess the winter nights are long in Reykjavik.
The Hallgrimskirkja church is one of the standout buildings in the city. Built in the expressionist style and completed in 1986, its columnar fluted tower can be seen from all over the city and is the tallest building in the country. Inside was all seamless concrete walls and soaring Gothic arches with a spectacular modern organ containing 5275 pipes. Underfloor heating made this by far the warmest church I’ve ever visited. Sarah went up the 75m tall tower, but I declined. The memories of my climb to the top of the Galata Tower in Istanbul were quite enough to keep my feet firmly on terra-firma.
We returned to the Skuggi for a rest before donning long johns and extra layers and venturing out for an early evening meal at an Italian restaurant with the rest of our party. Sadly, pizzas were off the menu – probably something to do with an ad in the window for a pizza chef. Where on earth are they going to find one of those in Reykjavik?
Sharron had organised a Northern Lights boat tour later in the evening. To get the optimum view, we needed to get away from Reykjavik’s modest light pollution and the best way was by boat across the bay. The temperatures were sub-zero out on the sea. We drifted around for a couple of hours but it was bitter outside, so most people, including us, stayed below until Nico, the guide, spotted activity and called everyone up on deck.
We’ve never seen the Aurora before, but here it was, pale green veils shimmering in the freezing night sky, ghostly and ephemeral, but however fascinating, it really was very cold indeed. Red thermal overalls were available for the more hardy guests, Twix and Snickers were available for those of a less enthusiastic bent. Like us. I found it far too faint for photos until Sharron showed me some extra features on my iPhone which I had no idea existed, but by then it was too late and we were cruising back to port, to the hotel and a swift slide into a warm bed.
The following morning, we were dragged out of sleep by an alarm, which doesn’t happen often nowadays. Our hotel buffet breakfast was varied and delicious and with full tums, we togged up in multiple layers once again and were waiting for a transfer bus to take us to the whale watching boat when Sharron received phone call at very last minute to say the trip had been cancelled due to bad weather. We guess it was due to rough seas became it was actually a glorious morning, with a low watery sun shining from a clear blue sky.
Now with an unexpected free morning, everyone split up to do their own thing. With Sarah, we decided to walk to the National Museum of Iceland across town. It was bitterly cold, of course. The museum was a modern building just the other side of a large and very frozen lake. We met Ken and Sue on the way and they decided to join us.
The receptionist was charm personified and made us most welcome. We stripped off our many outer layers and deposited them in a locker because, like most buildings around town, the underfloor heating meant it was toasty warm inside.
The museum was packed with fascinating exhibits, dating back to Iceland’s discovery in around 800 AD and ranging through to the 20th century. Here’s a few interesting facts for you; the Black Death, smallpox and multiple volcanic eruptions seriously reduced the population in the middle-ages, all women got the vote in 1920, whereas universal suffrage was not achieved in Britain until 1928, and Iceland declared itself independent of Danish rule eleven days after the D-Day landings in June 1944.
We fetched up in the cafe for coffee and a warm pastry, served by a young man with a dry sense of humour. He informed us many Icelanders are thus inclined and that they also have a particular liking for sarcasm whilst going about their daily business. This, when added to their obvious respect and courtesy, was a winning combination for me and, just like the people we met in the frigid eastern Turkish city of Kars back in 2019, confirmed what I observed back then – the colder the weather, the warmer the people.
English was spoken widely by almost everyone we met whereas my Icelandic remained limited to ‘takk’, meaning thanks, and ‘salerni’, meaning toilet. Well, you do need to get your priorities right, whatever country you find yourself in, and experience has taught me both words are of critical importance.
Our itinerary swung back on schedule in the afternoon. An excellent road took us along the Reykjanes Peninsula through a barren volcanic lava field near Grindavik, and we disembarked at the Blue Lagoon, a hot spa snuggled up to the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power station, all billowing vents of white steam swirling up into the clear blue sky. Have I mentioned Iceland is spectacularly endowed with geothermal resources? This power station provides the spa with its unique waters via a number of two kilometre deep boreholes descending into some hot rocks. Very hot. Basically, they keep going down until the drill melts!
This was a major tourist attraction, judging by the size of the coach and car park. Once through the busy turnstiles and having donned my trusty trunks in the men’s changing room, I took a shower and joining Jan again, slipped into the lagoon pretty sharpish as the day was not exactly balmy. The lagoon temperature was a deliciously warm 38C and the water pale blue in colour because of the way high levels of dissolved silica reflected the sunlight. Clouds of steam drifted across the lagoon like a scene from an old monster movie – you could lose sight of your neighbour surprisingly quickly.
The rest of our group emerged and Sharron took pictures of everyone on her phone, safely sealed inside a waterproof plastic bag. Despite the hot water, my forehead and cheeks ached with cold. Jan discovered her hair had frozen on her head, even though from the neck down we were immersed in deliciously milky, slightly sulphurous hot water. Unsurprising as the air temp was a brisk -6C. We soon discovered the water was significantly hotter near the borehole heads and loitered there as lots of happy people either loomed out of, or disappeared into, the dense steamy fog. We daubed our faces in rejuvenating silica mud and took a drink at the semi-submerged bar.
On getting out, we were quickly handed a towel each to try off and while showering again, I idly wondered just how many clean towels they get through on a really busy day. Our band, now surgically clean and freshly-rejuvenated, then met for a coffee in the cafe. I bought two small bags of crisps and they cost £8! Iceland is not cheap, that’s for sure, but then their average wage is significantly higher than in the UK – the country actually has the second highest average wage in the world after the USA.
That evening, Jan, Sarah and I did not have to walk far for our evening meal and sat at the bar in a cool trendy Scandi eatery just around the corner from the hotel. We managed to get pizzas, so these guys probably employed the only pizza chef in town. This was followed by an early night. Well, come on – wallowing in steaming hot water up to your lower lip for an hour can be surprisingly exhausting. Try it for yourselves and you’ll see what I mean.
The next day, we were picked up after breakfast in a pair of Super 4x4s for a day’s safari inland to the mountains. These were both extensively modified vehicles perfect for tackling the difficult terrain up country. Jan, Sarah and I were in a Jeep with such huge wheels we needed a footstool to climb inside. Everyone else piled into a modified VW Sprinter converted to four wheel drive with equally huge wheels shod with chunky studded tyres. Our driver was the lovely, affable Heimir.
So, off we set on a fine, cloudless morning, cold but bright under the usual pale sun, and departed Reykjavik on excellent roads. The countryside was in deep winter hibernation, with lots of lava-themed emptiness, tussocky fields, some populated with extremely shaggy horses possessing surprisingly impressive beards, all backed by distant rugged volcanic snow-capped peaks. We passed by a surprising number of stunted birch forests, the hardy trees barely chest-high. Heimir proved a fount of knowledge on everything and demonstrated that wry humour which comes naturally to so many Icelanders. For instance, ‘How do you find your way out of the forest if you get lost? You stand up.’
Our first stop was at a viewpoint above Thingvellir Lake, Iceland’s second largest. Although a bright sun sparkled over the water, we didn’t loiter – it was a bracing -11C. It’s here that a narrow ravine slices through the landscape. This marks the junction between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates and is just one small visible section of a 10,000 mile-long fissure running down the centre of the Atlantic. Slowly, imperceptibly, these two plates are diverging, splitting apart to create the mountainous mid-Atlantic ridge. We were standing on the edge of the North American plate, and when we departed from the viewpoint, the road passed over this fissure onto the Eurasian plate. Heady stuff.
On we drove to Gulfoss, one of the more spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. The walk down from the visitor centre was not in any way onerous, but it was absolutely, cheek-burning, appendage-shrinking, finger-numbingly freezing. A truly vicious wind chilled the already sub-zero temperatures even further. I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold in my life! We took a few quick snaps of the almost frozen waterfall – that should give you an idea of the temperature – before scampering back to the balmy comfort of the visitor centre for a reviving hot chocolate.
From Gulfoss, we took a dirt road, normally closed in winter, and drove up into the mountains, winding through a drab grey-brown landscape devoid of any vegetation but sparse tufts of dead grass. Passing the snow line, we were thankful for those chunky studded tyres which easily coped with the ice and compacted snow we encountered – and we encountered a lot – while continuing to climb ever upwards until we reached the snowmobile venue, no more than a scattering of huts and thankfully, a loo.
The place was a hive of activity, a real Snowmobile Central. People came and went, usually on snowmobiles. Outside, ranks of snowmobiles awaited new passengers. We togged up in a hut full of fur-lined snow suits, thermal gloves and crash helmets. This additional layer of clothing further restricted my movement and reduced me to waddling like a penguin. We then attended a demonstration on how to safely ride a snowmobile from a young instructor who’d just broken his arm after falling off a snowmobile! Honestly, you couldn’t make it up – just like living in Turkey again.
Jan declined to go, figuring quite rightly that it would have been far too cold for her to manage, and there was no point in taking my camera as I knew it would also freeze, so I apologise for not having any photos of the trek. Everyone paired up and we mounted our snowmobiles. I struggled to get my leg over the saddle due to multiple layers of inflexible clothing! We set off, with Sarah driving and me as her passenger, heading in a convoy up onto the Langjökull Glacier.
Blimey, was it properly cold, even with all the protective clothing. We brought up the rear of our convoy, with the guide leading and his colleague minding the rear of the line, in other words, Sarah and I. It was not exactly a comfortable ride, but the scenery was utterly mind-boggling. The electric blue sky was completely cloudless, the atmosphere crystal clear. The summit of the glacier was gently rounded, with rugged peaks of black rock breaking through on either side and incredible vistas across the snowy terrain in all directions.
In places, where the light dusting of snow had drifted away in the wind, the glacier itself was exposed, revealing milky, pale blue ice, its surface resembling translucent polished marble. For me, there was a profound purity to the wintry landscape, one untainted by human presence. It was absolutely stunning, the views truly majestic, and to the southeast, eighty miles away, we could see the infamous Eyjafjallajökull (island, mountains, glacier, in English) volcano, he whose eruption in 2010 grounded most aircraft in northwestern Europe.
We stopped occasionally so the guides could check we were all OK. It was absolutely perishing. The temperature was -17C back down at base camp, but up here at the zenith of our climb, our leader assured me that with the wind chill, the temperature was an astonishingly brutal -31C. No wonder my poor cheeks hurt!
Now on the return leg – and I couldn’t wait to get out of the face-numbing wind – we headed into the wintry sun, up hill and down dale over the undulating surface. Ice chips flying out from the back of the snowmobiles ahead danced and tumbled across the glacier in front of us, glittering in the sunlight like tossed diamonds.
Then were were back at Snowmobile Central. Sarah was absolutely thrilled with the whole experience. She loved driving and I was glad to have been behind her, trying to keep my extremities alive, but what an experience. The phenomenal scenery was serenely beautiful, and despite the biting cold, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Back in the hut, I needed help stripping off, but at least I was no longer flapping about like Pingu. Forget all those ads about Voltarol restoring your freedom of movement – just take off a couple of layers and you’ll be bouncing around like Tigger! Reunited with Jan, Heimir took us down the mountain again to Geysir, the original location from which all geysers are named. Up it came, bursting out of the ground in a vertical spurting plume of steam, regular as clockwork once every seven minutes. There were vents and pots in the ground all over the place, each filled with furiously boiling water and exuding continuous streamers of sulphurous steam. Very primeval.
From Geysir, we drove back to Reykjavik via a different road. Rarely was there a view without white billowing steam rising up into the pristine sky, either naturally via fissures, or from geothermal power stations and all their attendant boreholes. We crossed ancient moss-covered lava flows, impossible to traverse on foot without breaking an ankle or two, and drove past pretty country houses with red corrugated iron roofs.
Heimir got very enthusiastic with his explanations and stories of Icelandic life. While discussing the price of electricity – in Iceland, it’s virtually free, coming in at £0.05p per kilowatt/ hour, as opposed to £0.34p in the UK, or a mind-blowing 680 times more expensive – he came out with one of his classically wry observations: ‘We cannot afford to buy food, but at least we can die of starvation in the warm.’ After discovering a bag of crisps costs £4, I can see his point.
So engrossed was he that we were well on the way to the wrong hotel before he realised his mistake, so we had an extra tour of Reykjavik before finally navigating our way back to the Skuggi. What a day!
For our final evening, the whole group had a meal downtown, enjoying good food in a warm and inviting basement restaurant, followed by a brisk walk home, wrapped up to the nines as usual while the youngsters of Reykjavik strolled around in totally inadequate clothing – lightweight shirts for the men, outrageously short miniskirts for the girls. Sarah, Jan and I agreed we all would have once done the same way back in the 70s, but no longer. Our geothermically heated hotel bedrooms awaited, and that was perfection for us all.
A good breakfast set us up for the morning trip back to Keflavik and we left Iceland, as we’d arrived just four days earlier, in bright sunshine. We were impressed. It’s a barren but stunningly beautiful country full of really lovely and weirdly wonderful people. I’ve never seen so many sex shops, never felt so cold, never seen puffin on a menu before, never driven over a glacier or watched a geyser spouting, never been surrounded by so many properly bearded men – and even bearded horses – never looked out over vistas that always seemed to include volcanoes and distant plumes of steam, as if the landscape itself was breathing, and never before seen the aurora borealis. This was definitely a holiday of firsts.
And finally, you may ask, where do the many, many penises referred to in the heading of this article come into the picture? Well, Reykjavik has the world’s only Phallological Museum, containing several hundred penises garnered from across the animal – and human – world. Well, I did say the winter nights are long and dark in Iceland! I’d have liked to visit, purely for comparative purposes, you understand, as my own well-endowed manhood is universally acknowledged as mightily magnificent by all who know me, but I never got the chance.
Probably best, it had been a very cold visit!
Jan and I would like to convey our huge thanks to Sharron Whetherly for putting this trip together. Sharron is an extremely knowledgeable Travel Counsellor and has a wealth of experience in the travel industry, specialising in putting together bespoke holiday options for the discerning traveller. We have engaged Sharron for a number of our own holidays and cannot recommend her highly enough. Sharron can be reach on 01453 808010.
Hotel Skuggi, Hverfisgata 103, 101 Reykjavik, Iceland. Tel: +354 590 7000. All the staff speak fluent English, as did every Icelander we met. Noted for warm floors and great breakfasts.