Iceland, an introduction

The airport at Keflavik is bathed in grey light when we finally get off the plane. Julia and Damon have brought the car to collect us – a fantastic luxury – and on the drive back to our accommodation, the darkness grows. There are tantalizing glimpses of the landscape in shadow, but nothing can be seen clearly. The sun doesn’t rise the next morning until 10.52am.

Reykjavik – 9.48am

Our accommodation is a tiny cabin made from shipping containers about 20 minutes outside of Reykjavik. The hosts live in the house in front of us, and are warm and welcoming and kind. The place is decorated in coloured scarves, windchimes, dreamcatchers, and fairylights. Huge amounts of artwork line the walls. On the first night, we eat noodles and plan our week.

The next day we are up early and out by 8.15am. The moon is high in the sky and I have never seen darkness like it. Jules and Damon are off on the trip of a lifetime – snorkeling in Silfra National Park between two tectonic plates and then hiking through lava caves – but Sean and I are going to stay in Reykjavik. Breakfast is delicious, in a cosy café. We walk to the old harbor and get caught in the sideways rain, seeking shelter in the maritime museum and in a coffee shop to dry ourselves out. The hot chocolate is dark and bitter and perfect.

We visit a flea market and I find a copy of Peter Pan in Icelandic. One more for the collection! We buy kleinur (a type of Icelandic donut), smoked lamb, and flatbread made with Icelandic moss for our lunch. We walk back down to Tjörnin, the lake in the middle of the city, and see the birdlife. Some are swimming in the small area of thawed water, others walk across the frozen surface. All of them are noisy and greedy for bread.

We walk back to Austurvöllur to meet a walking tour and learn about the Reykjavik Cathedral and Parliament House. There is hardly any security in Iceland – you can walk into the park behind Parliament House and knock on the door and all. They have such a low crime rate – 1.3 murders a year, and 650 policeman in the entire country. We learn about the history of the country under Danish rule and the journey to independence. We walk downtown, through streets of houses made from colourful corrugated iron, then up to Arnarhóll and the statue of Ingólfr Arnarson, the founder of Reykjavik according to the sagas. He named the city Reykjavik – ‘bay of steam’. We end at the Harpa Concert Hall and I have a bacon hot dog with Icelandic mayo on the way back into town. We wait for Jules and Damon at a restaurant, taking advantage of Happy Hour, and then return back for one more night at our arty cabin.

The next morning we move more leisurely and the sun has risen by the time we are packed up and ready to leave. The landscape takes my breath away, and we drive into the country, mountains and valleys and rocks and rivers covered in snow. We take more photos than we should, and stop in Selfoss for a coffee and some groceries and lunch. I buy The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness at a gorgeous bookshop/café called Bokakaffid.

We hit the road again, headed for Seljalandsfoss. This waterfall is enormous, but the weather conditions have made it dangerous for climbing the stairs to get behind the curtain of water. People are doing it anyway, but we realize quickly it is not for us – the smallest bridge is iced over and nigh impossible to climb. We improvise! It’s fun and only a wee bit risky. The sound of the water is deafening.

We drive down the road to the coast, to a ferry terminal named Landeyjahöfn. In better weather, they run a ferry from here to Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. The ferry is not running, but the black sand and crashing waves make for nice photos. Next time I want to take the ferry – Vestmannaeyjar is full of puffin.

It is not a long drive to Reynisfjara, our home for the next night. This place is world-famous for the black sand beach, and our cabin sits on the shore, overlooking the grey line of mist where the sea and sky meet. We trek down to the sand and the surf and take our photos. I cannot believe the sand – fine, coarse, and absolutely pitch black, mixed with snow and smooth black pebbles. This beach is dangerous – more than one tourist has drowned on this coast, dragged out by a freak wave. We stay well back and marvel from afar.

When the sun goes down, we drive into Vik. We find a swimming pool, and, like people who have taken leave of their senses, we change into our bathers and sit in the thermal pool in the middle of a snowstorm. My toes freeze on the dash from the spa to the changing rooms. Other people join us – just tourists, no Icelanders. They are sensible. Inside.

We go to the only restaurant in Vik that is open, and have an absolutely delicious meal – burgers and pizzas with fresh, Icelandic ingredients. A piece of meringue cake to finish, and then we drive back to our beachside cabin, the snowfall getting stronger and stronger as we drive. It is eerie, driving on a dark mountain road with the snow rushing at you. Then, we are home. Snug inside our cabin with some flatbread and hummus and cheese and alcohol. The forecast for the Northern Lights is not great. We will perhaps be lucky another night.

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