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Wild Journeys for Eighty-somethings

28 Feb 2019, by Fiona Weller

Call me selfish (rude) but for some time now I’ve been favouring family birthday and Christmas gifts that I myself benefit from. So for Christmas last year, I gave my mum (you can call her Irene) a trip to Iceland. Our trip was booked for the end of February - three nights in Reykjavik and four days of fun and adventures in and around the capital, just a few days before her 84th birthday. Perfect. 

All Wrapped Up

Because I booked everything with Where The Wild Is. I had the option of presenting Mum’s holiday ‘All Wrapped Up’. What she opened on Christmas morning was a beautiful box wrapped in brown string with that distinctive WW logo that always means something wonderful is coming...

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Irene's holiday. All Wrapped Up

As she opened the lid, there it was. A personalised itinerary including a list and map of things to see and do in Reykjavik, a Lonely Planet guide to Iceland, a note book, mugs, chocolate, Polaar skincare, hand warmers and Icelandic vodka to keep us toasty in the great Arctic outdoors.

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Inside the gift box

And one makes three

Irene was speechless - an unusual occurrence - but once she got her head around what she was looking at, wasted no time in letting my sister know who her best daughter is. My sister (you can call her Lynda), meanwhile, wasted no time in telling us she’d be coming too. Iceland and aurora hunting has a prominent place on her extensive bucket list. 

I contacted Where The Wild Is to ask if that was a problem. Seems problem is not a word they recognise - our booking was adjusted instantly. All we had to do was make a quick trip to Marks & Spencer for their innovative thermal undies with Japanese Heatgen™ technology*, and we were ready to go. 

*other thermals are available but I must say these are particularly soft, cosy and lovely.

Prepare for take off

We flew from Bristol with easyJet - an early morning flight and living an hour away from the airport meant a 4.30am alarm but a drive free of traffic congestion. A wonderful husband meant a taxi door-to-door and no need to be faffed with airport parking.

Airports are getting smarter and smarter with technology, and Bristol is no exception. We went straight to the bag drop – not a queue in sight – printed our tags and dropped our bags at the check in before heading up the escalator to departures.

My mum takes most things in her stride, but automation is one of the things that causes her to falter. Lynda and I did the bag tag thing for her, but as we approached those first barriers into departure where you scan the code on your boarding pass, I could see her looking worried. “These things never work” is possibly not the most positive mindset when you’re approaching the scanner, and so it turned out. I think she was so focused on pressing the barcode down she missed the gate opening and shutting. Luckily a lovely man was there to help.

On through security – where Mum’s bag needed to be examined, obvs - and then we were propelled out onto the magical glittering walkway that guides you through Duty Free.

Heads full of scandalous tales about £10 pints and £70 chardonnays in Iceland’s capital, we made straight for the booze and stocked up on gin and wine. Then, after a quick stop for water and magazines, we made for the gate.

My mum is exceptionally fit, so a long walk to the gate doesn’t faze her at all. I was really pleased to see that Bristol Airport have wheelchairs and mobility aids on hand for those who do need them though. It can sometimes seem like you’re walking halfway to your destination.

Boarding was effortless, the flight took off on time, the easyJet crew were lovely and the bacon rolls, blueberry muffins and coffees went down a treat. Iceland here we come!

Arriving in Iceland

There is an airport in the city of Reykjavik but it offers mainly internal flights within Iceland and flights to Greenland. International flights arrive at Keflavik Airport, just over 30 miles south west of Reykjavik.

Our flight arrived early and stepping out of the plane, we got our first feel of the wonderful Arctic chill.

Even in comparison to Bristol, Keflavik Airport feels tiny. We came out into the arrivals hall and, following the instructions on my Where the Wild Is vouchers, headed straight for the Airport Direct service desk. They run buses into the city every hour. We were booked on the 12.15pm, but having arrived before 11am, I asked if we could take an earlier bus. We were in luck – 3 seats left!

We sat and people watched for a little while, before a big bearded Icelander arrived and shouted my name. He packed our bags in the back, we piled into his mini bus and headed for the city.

The landscape between Keflavik and Reykjavik feels weird and wonderful – vast plains that seem lunar in texture, with volcanic peaks on the horizon. We passed the fire service museum, with an old fire engine on the roof, and saw small houses scattered across the countryside. The sky was cloudy with clear patches and as we approached the city, our driver told us the aurora forecast was good.

Airport Direct takes you straight to your hotel, and we were the second drop off, right at the door of the Eyja Guldsmeden hotel.

Welcome to Eyja Guldsmeden

What a cool hotel. We arrived to a lovely smile and a warm welcome, and despite official check in time being 3pm, were able to go straight to our room. First, we were introduced to how everything works. Breakfast available 7am till 11am; tea, coffee and apples available any time you want them; reception staff available 24 hours a day and loads of comfortable space to read and relax around the reception area. We were given a map to show just how central we were - Eyja Guldsmeden is right off Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main shopping street.

Our 3rd floor room, a superior triple – was fabulous. Floor to ceiling windows opened onto a balcony with a view over the city and the sea to the snow covered mountains.

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The bar and breakfast area at the Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel
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Room at the Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel

After some excitement about the gorgeous I Love Eco Essentials toiletries in our bathroom (who can resist a Chopper Scrubber) we unpacked, then wrapped up warm and headed off to explore the city.

On the way downstairs, my phone pinged. It was a message from Superjeeps.is: Confirmed – tonight’s Northern Lights Hunt is on. We’re off to a great start!

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Eco Essentials toiletries at the Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel

Exploring downtown Reykjavik

Turning left and then first right out of the hotel, we headed down toward the water and found a square with a distinctive statue, or, as Lynda described it, a horse with skis.™ This horse helped us keep our bearings for the next few days, so was an important friend to us on our trip.

A few days before departure, Where The Wild Is sent us some travel notes, and at this point, they were absolutely brilliant. Suggestions for cafés and lunch stops and landmarks or views to look out for helped us really make the most of our exploring time.

Laugavegur is a long street with a creative and arty vibe. There are lots of touristy shops as you’d expect - and no, we couldn’t resist the face in a hole photo opportunity as rampaging Vikings half way down the street – but lots of designer goods and interior shops too. Some of Reykjavik’s most exciting street art is here too. Look out for the amazing artwork by the artist Caratoes at Laugavegur 23 and the brilliant pop art fresco by D*Face at Laugavegur 66.

When you’re done gazing at the buildings, check out the space between them. As we walked towards the harbour, pretty much every side road to the right gave us a spectacular view over the water to the mountains.

Lunch at Sandholt

Time for a lunch stop. Our Where The Wild Is Travel Notes gave a few suggestions on and around Laugavegur and the Sandholt Bakery sounded just the job. This is a lovely little family-run bakery and eatery, open for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner.  We found a comfy corner and chose from their sandwiches of the day. The soft pretzel with salmon, pickled red onion, cream cheese and dill is highly recommended – it was deee-licious.

Rested and re-energised, we carried on along Laugavegur to where it meets Skólavördustigur Street (easy for you to say J).

Skólavördustigur Street almost doubles back on Laugavegur, and leads up to the landmark that dominates the city from pretty much everywhere: Hallgrímskirkja Church.

This is another street full of fabulous arty shops and home to the one of the best music shops in the world, 12 Tónar.  12 Tónar has been a hub of Icelandic music for years. Sigur Rós and Björk are fans. Pop for a free espresso and browse an amazing collection of CDs and vinyls. Then, if you find something you like the sound of, find a comfy armchair, pop some headphones on and have a listen. Like some bookshops (Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, I’m looking at you), this is one of those shops that you can get totally, wonderfully lost in. Sadly, we didn’t have time for that. Churches to see, towers to climb.

Hallgrímskirkja Church

Hallgrímskirkja Church is Reykjavík's main landmark. Its tower can be seen from almost everywhere in the city.

As you approach from Skólavördustigur Street, a statue of Leifur Eiríksson greets you. Leifur was the first European to discover America, 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The statue, which predates the church, was a gift from the United States, commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland's first parliament at Þingvellir in 930 AD. Oooh, Þingvellir. We’re going there tomorrow.

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Shopping street in Reykjavik with Hallgrímskirkja Church in the distance

The church famously took over 40 years to build. The tower was completed long before the rest of the building, so following the same chronology we headed straight for the shop to buy tickets for the ascent. And guess what – there’s a lift! And it goes pretty much all they way to the top. Irene’s last citybreak treat took us to Bruges, where she put many a younger traveller to shame by springing up all 366 steps of the 83m Belfort with barely a puff. The Tower at Hallgrímskirkja is only 74m but even she looked pleased to see the elevator.

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Hallgrímskirkja Church in Rejkjavik

The sky had really cleared, so when we got out of the lift to a floor with round windows on each side and a central staircase, we could see there were amazing views to be had up here. We climbed straight on to the top where the air was absolutely freezing, but high windows with steps up provided the most fantastic views of the city, from every possible angle. The coloured rooftops of Reykjavik shone for us in the sunshine and we saw the city at its absolute best.  The bell rang while we were up there, reminding us it’s time to move on.

Returning to earth, we ventured into the church. Outside and in, Hallgrímskirkja is expressionist in style, designed to reflect Iceland’s glacial landscape. Compared to the churches and cathedrals of other European capitals, it is extraordinarily plain, simple and minimalist. The windows are plain glass, and the ceilings pale grey. The most eye-catching feature sits high on the wall above the door – a huge, gleaming pipe organ, around 15m high. I’m not a religious person in the slightest, but if felt like a calm and reassuring place to be. And I’m pretty sure my sister prayed to see the Northern Lights.

From the church, it was a shortish walk back to the hotel for a quick freshen up, a crunchy apple and a duty free G&T. Then, thermals on, cameras charged, we headed off down towards the harbour where we had a 6.30pm table booked at Icelandic Fish & Chips and an 8pm pick up for our Superjeeps Northern Lights Hunt!

Icelandic Fish & Chips

A Where The Wild Is recommendation we were more than happy to go with, Icelandic Fish and Chips sits on a corner near the harbour. 14 hours of non-stop fun and a brisk walk downtown gave us a great appetite, and the specials board looked very promising. We all went for fish (quel surprise). Cod on a bed of green salad with crispy potatoes and tzatziki skyronnes (dip to you and me) for Mum and Lynda; Wolf fish on a bed of mango salad with crispy potatoes and chilli skyronnes for me, all washed down with a cheeky local beer.

The food was great – I wolfed down the wolf fish - but the service very slow – when we still hadn’t ordered after half an hour, I had to go and tell them we needed to leave by 8pm. Then it all went from ultra slow to ultra fast, with an attempt to clear away our plates before we’d actually finished. Felt like there was possibly a mix up amongst the staff though, so don’t let that put you off. It’s great food, and at around 2,800 ISK for a special, reasonably priced for Reykjavik.

As the clock struck 8pm, we looked across the street to see, as promised, a Superjeep waiting. Irene was super impressed by yet more seamless Where The Wild Is organisation and loved just stepping from one new experience to another. I’m sure she had servants in a previous life.

Superjeeps Northern Lights Hunt

So, the jeep was there but the driver wasn’t. We waited by the vehicle until a tattooed Viking of a bloke approached. This was Arni, but not, as it turned out, our driver. That was to be Eggert who, having just picked up some other passengers, had arrived to collect us right at the restaurant door opposite.  

We crossed the street again and hopped in, saying hello to our fellow hunters before buckling up, Irene and Lynda in the back, me in the middle next to a lovely couple from Manchester or thereabouts. In the front, a young American lady with a big black furry hood* had bagged the prime spot next to Eggert.

As we drove out of the city, he explained how it was going to work: we needed to get away from the light pollution and basically follow the stars. Where there are stars, there are possibilities of seeing the elusive Aurora Borealis.

Superjeeps had three jeeps out that evening with a total of 18 passengers. We travelled in convoy, with drivers Arni, Eggert and Kate in constant touch by radio, switching from Icelandic to English to keep us hunters entertained. They told us the aurora forecast was showing a 4 (out of a KP index from 1-9) meaning geomagnetic activity was strong and bright, constant and dynamic northern lights could be visible, if only we could find clear enough skies.

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The Northern Lights and a Superjeep in Iceland

"Our guides were fun, funny and knowledgeable, but above all else they were absolutely bloody determined to find the lights. The five hours that followed were totally exhilarating"

After a first stop at a valley in the direction of Þingvellir only to see the skies clouding over, we hit the road again, chasing the stars further from the city. The Superjeeps guys know exactly how to read the skies and the weather, so I knew we were in the best possible hands.  We’d drive for a while, get out and gaze at the skies, maybe see a bit of a glow, then pile back in and keep moving. They were relentless in their hunt, full of energy and enthusiasm, which was really infectious. When we got cold and our necks ached from looking skywards, they pulled big flasks of hot chocolate from the back of the jeep, and topped our steaming cups up with Icelandic vodka to keep the chill at bay. It was late, we’d been up for nearly 20 hours, and yet when Arni and his colleagues took off over the rocky lava fields, following rivers and skidding across banks of snow, our spirits were high and our adrenaline pumping.

Midnight came and went and, after a hairy scary drive way off road, we stopped the jeeps in what felt like a natural bowl – a flat, marshy area alongside a river, totally surrounded by mountains. And above us, stars.

The Superjeeps drivers talk about the aurora as if they’re describing a tempestuous love affair with a fickle siren. Arni’s elated shout as the sky opened up and a slash of bright green light widened into a shimmering roll of colour will stay with me for a long time. He does this night after night after night, and still sounded totally bewitched: “She’s dancing for us!”

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The Northern Lights and a Superjeep in Iceland

One of the other brilliant things about Superjeeps (I’m a fan – can you tell?) is that they take photos for you. Very few phone cameras have the long exposure capability to be able to capture the Northern Lights, so the Superjeeps guys take a whole load of photos for their hunters. They’re all available on their facebook page the day after the hunt, or by emailing them. There’s no branding or watermark on them, just wonderful reminders of an awesome trip. The night we went out Lynda was absolutely determined to get pictures on her own camera, and Eggert, Kate and Arni spent a lot of time helping her get the settings right. Her photos are great. 

If you’re not as lucky as we were, and don’t see the Northern Lights on your first attempt, they’ll take you on a second hunt, totally free.

Our trip back to the city was what you might call bumpy at first – I’m pretty sure Irene’s head hit the roof at least once – but back on the road it didn’t seem long before we were back in the city. Eggert dropped us right at our hotel door, and we wend straight to bed. Day 1 done, and an 8.30am pick up for more adventures tomorrow! Sweet dreams.

Superjeeps Golden Circle Tour

Our first breakfast at Eyja Guldsmeden did not disappoint. Lashings of black coffee and fresh orange juice; smoked salmon and scrambled eggs on sourdough toast, fresh fruit with blueberry and vanilla yogurt. You could say I stocked up for the day. The buffet is really impressive – a lovely selection of breads and pastries, fish meat and cheese, cereal fruit and yogurt – everything you could possibly want. Flasks of black coffee are available, with other coffee orders on request. There’s a lovely selection of teas too, and even a shot of fish oil if you fancy one.

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Breakfast at Eyja Guldmeden Hotel
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Breakfast at Eyja Guldmeden Hotel

After a quick return to the room to clean our gnashers with aforementioned Chopper Scrubbers, we wrapped up warm and went down to the lobby to wait for Superjeeps 2: The Sequel.

We didn’t have long to wait. A smiling young man called Halli scooped us up in his jeep where another 2 passengers were already on board. We made our introductions and headed off on our next adventure: the Golden Circle and Langjökull Glacier.

Halli described the day ahead and encouraged us to ask any questions as we went. Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park, just 45 minutes south of Reykjavik.

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Thingvellir National Park

As we got out of the jeep and headed towards the viewpoint, a familiar face emerged from the visitor centre. Arni!  We greeted him like part of the family – that’s the love you get when you show someone the Northern Lights. Better still, it transpired that he was part of our Superjeeps entourage today too. We had a fun day ahead!

If you ever did GCSE Geography, you should know that Iceland is divided by the mid Atlantic rift and it’s the only place in the world where the rift is above sea-level. At Thingvellir, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you see the edges of both plates, and walk between them.  

The tectonic plates move apart by about an inch a year and have done for millennia. The lava fields all around us came from magma welling up as the continents spread. The whole area is scarred with deep ravines, ripped apart by centuries of earthquakes. 

At the viewpoint, Halli took some photos for us and told us a bit about the park. These guys really know their stuff and they love their country. It was great to hear him talk about the founding of the Icelandic parliament over 1000 years ago, the growing impact of the Earth’s tectonic plates pulling apart and concern about glacial erosion, as well as pointing us to where many a Game of Thrones scene has been filmed.

Halli invited us to take a 20 minute walk through the Almannagjá gorge, between the continents, promising to pick us up at the other side.

The start of the path is a wooden walkway, put in place when holes with 10m drops started to appear on the stone path in 2011 – a reminder of the volatile earth below us. We strolled through the gorge, gazing in wonder at the precipitous rock face and the landscape beyond. The views are amazing, and an Iceland flag flies proudly beside the path. You really have a sense of the earth at its most elemental here. I confess our walk may have taken a little more than 20 minutes, but after a lovely little waterfall, we followed the path to join Halli at the jeep and continue our journey.

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Strokkur

Our next stop on the Golden Circle was the Geysir geothermal area in Haukadalur.

The main event and crowd pleaser here is Strokkur - one of the largest and most powerful geysers in Iceland. To the delight of the watching and waiting, it erupts in a towering burst of water, gas and steam every 5-ish minutes.

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Strokkur erupting into the sky

This felt like the busiest and most touristy place of our entire trip (and yes, that does include Blue Lagoon – more on that later.) We could see the steam from a distance, and as we approached there was quite a crowd around Strokkur.

Halli dropped us off opposite the main geothermal area, outside a restaurant, cafe, hotel and luxury gift shop. We headed straight across the road and followed the track towards the geysirs. The path has a strange bluey-silvery silica glaze and the air is distinctly sulphuric. Signs warn visitors against straying from the path – what looks like solid ground can be deceptive and straying could land you in very hot water.  The bubbling pools here are 80 -100°C.

Having caught the magnificent Strokkur on video and admired the cute little cauldron called Litli-Geysit, we headed back to the Kantina to visit the loos and the café. The shop here has some really beautiful things. We lusted after the eye-wateringly expensive Icelandic jumpers before grabbing a coffee to go and jumping back into the jeep. Next up: Gullfoss.

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Gullfoss Waterfall

How do you even start to describe Gullfoss? Its might and fury is breathtaking – an amazing spectacle of power and water and sound and light.

You can see the waterfall from two levels. Halli dropped us at the bottom and we climbed to the top, arranging to meet him beside the café. We had 30 minutes to take in the spectacular sight before us. As the water thunders into a canyon of the Hvítá river, the air at Gullfoss is full of mist and sunlight creates rainbows, adding to the feeling that you’re experiencing something really magical.

Gullfoss means golden falls and there are three theories about the name. Inspired by the golden evening hue that colours the glacial water, because of the rainbows that appear when sunshine hits the spray, or to honour a local farmer who cast all his gold into the waterfall so no one else could get their hands on it – you decide. Alarmingly, Irene’s favourite version was the farmers gold. There goes our inheritance, Lynda J

Reading the information boards beside the falls, we also learned the story of Sigrídur Tómasdóttir. When foreign investors wanted to build a hydroelectric powerplant at Gullfoss in the early 1900s, she fought tooth and nail to save the falls, eventually threatening to throw herself in. Fortunately, it never came to that and construction plans were cancelled. Go Sigrídur!

Back to the jeep and we found Halli and Arni beside the biggest bus you’ve ever seen. Think National Express coach on extreme steroids – looked like something you’d find on an American monster trucks channel and definitely not for me. If I’m going off road, I’ll stick with Superjeeps thanks. And that’s exactly where we were heading next.

Langjökull (Icelandic for long glacier) is 953km² of pure, unblemished beauty – it’s the second largest ice cap in Iceland.

Neither Strokkur or Gullfoss would exist in their current breathtaking forms without Langjökull glacier’s melting ice. While the glacier is providing us with the experience of a lifetime today and it’s really important that people understand why our natural world needs protecting, the sad irony is that tourists like us are only exacerbating the impact of global warming. Halli told us that Langjökull is shrinking fast - researchers fear that if climate change continues at its current rate, it may be gone in 50 years.

That knowledge was really important to us in choosing to travel with Where The Wild Is. Their eco philosophy is a founding principle of the business, not a ‘greenwash’ add on, so when they say they do everything they can to balance tourism with environmental protection, you can absolutely believe it.

Where the Wild Is only offer journeys built around conscious choices and carefully considered decisions, working with like-minded friends who share their ambition.

It’s not easy to get onto the glacier – once we were off road, those Superjeeps driving skills definitely kicked in. We were lucky with the weather too – if it had been as forecast, there’s no way we’d have got up to the top. When we did though, wow. It felt like we were on top of the world. Endless, clean crisp snow, stretching right to the sky. It felt amazing – the air was so clean it made your skin tingle. For a while, we all just stood and gazed around in total silence.

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Superjeeps Golden Circle Tour

Arni and Halli took some photos for us – as Irene and Lynda posed beside the Superjeep with Halli, the ice gave way under Irene’s foot – a top comedy moment of the day. The photos are hilarious.

After we’d been up there for a while, we could see a weather front coming in. It was moving fast, providing a thunderous looking backdrop to a tiny line of snowmobilers in the distance. Time to get off the glacier. We piled back in to the jeep and said goodbye to what, for me was the high point of our trip. I loved it up there.

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Superjeeps Golden Circle Tour

The road down was every bit as precarious as the road up – if not more. We met some totally bonkers self drive people as we headed back to the road. Halli and Arni were despairing of them – there’s no way a normal car can handle glacial terrain – they were sure to get stuck. And with the bad weather moving in fast, it wasn’t going to be easy to turn back. Note to self – if you really want to get into wild Iceland, self drive is probably not your best option.

The fresh air had definitely given us an appetite and Halli told us he was going to take us somewhere a bit different for lunch.

First though, he had to make some changes to his snow tyres (technical stuff, something about cables. Don’t ask. He and Arni seemed to know what they were doing.) That meant a quick stop at another waterfall, Faxi, and this time we had the entire place to ourselves. It was a great little spot. The rain held off, but Irene stayed up on the bank as Lynda and I went down to the waterfall to explore.

Faxi is a low, wide waterfall in the Tungufljót River. A fish ladder by the side of the waterfall helps the salmon get up river, without having to battle the thunderous current.

When we climbed back up onto the banking to join Irene, she told us she could feel the earth moving beneath her feet with the impact of the water.

We were just managing to stay ahead of the rain – it began to fall at Faxi just as we got back in the Superjeeps to find some lunch.

Lunch at Fridheimar

Different they said and different it was. This tomato farm was featured on Rick Stein’s Long Weekends when he visited Reykjavik, and is well worth a visit. Basically, you’ll have lunch in a massive greenhouse full of row after row of tomatoes. Take a look around while you wait for a table – it’s fascinating to see how Fridheimer grow such a bountiful crop all year round, despite Iceland’s long, dark winters, thanks to geothermal heating pumped up from the earth and lighting powered by hydroelectricity. Look out for a little wooden box with a glass lid where you can get up close and personal with the bees that pollinate the plants.

Once you’ve had a look round the greenhouse, you can enjoy a taste of the crop. Everything on the menu is tomato based, and the soup buffet is hard to beat. You can help yourself to as much tomato soup and fresh baked bread as you can eat, and after our glacier adventure, it tasted heavenly. There’s a basil plant on every table so you can add your own herbs, and the soup comes with sides of sour cream, cucumber salsa, butter and fresh herbs. If you want to add an extra ingredient, you can order vegetable, cheese, chicken or seafood sticks to bulk up your soup.

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We went for the soup and bread. As we ate, Arni told us that it was a special day in Iceland. 1st March is Icelandic beer day and this year was a a special one -  it’s 30 years since the country’s beer ban was lifted. What a brilliant excuse to try the  tomato beer – and it was surprisingly delicious.

The only downside about endless tomato soup and fresh baked bread and beer is that there was no room left for the green tomato and apple pie with whipped cream. Something to come back to.

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As we left Fridheimer, we all had a noticeably healthy glow. Not sure if it was the glacial air or the tomato beer, but we looked and felt great. We went to say hello to the Icelandic horses (Fridheimer breed tomatoes and horses) before biding farewell to Arni and heading back to the city. 

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Icelandic Horses

The weather had really taken a turn for the worse - Halli told us that that night’s Superjeeps Northern Lights hunt had been cancelled. We weren’t even a bit smug. He dropped us off right where we’d started: at our hotel door. What an amazing day!

Food & Fun Festival at Kopar

So, how do you follow that? With a Friday night on the town, obviously. Thanks to our wonderful Where The Wild Is concierge service, we had a table booked at one of the city’s best and buzziest restaurants – Kopar. Not till 9pm though, so time to chill at the hotel and reflect on a pretty extraordinary 24 hours over some duty free wine and almonds. Icelandic Fish & Chips seems like a long time ago.

While we’d been beating the weather across the south of Iceland, it had been raining in Reykjavik all day, and showed no signs of stopping. While the hotel has a stand full of umbrellas for guests in such an eventuality, we decided to splash out (or rather NOT splash at all) on a taxi. It cost 2000 ISK for a taxi from Eyja Guldsmeden down to the harbour, and given the torrential downpour we drove through, it was worth every krona. Even in the rain, the multi coloured lights of the Harpa (Reykjavik’s concert hall) was a spectacular sight.  

Kopar is a seafood restaurant, serving local and seasonal ingredients. It was absolutely packed when we got there, and very lively. They were taking part in the annual Reykjavik Food & Fun Festival, which meant a guest chef on duty and a special 6 course tasting menu. Our chef was Kobe Desramaults of Chambre separee in Gent, the youngest-ever Belgian chef to win a Michelin star.

We were shown to our table, with a great view of the kitchen and the chef in action. It was great not to have to make a choice, and just have dish after dish delivered to us. The little tasting portions suited us perfectly too after our hefty lunch.

The food was fab – langoustine, snow crab, scallops and hay smoked mussels, hogget lamb and sunchoke ice cream with dark beer sauce – it was a total taste sensation. The bill was 8,900ISK each – it would have cost us the same again to have the wine pairings. This was no ordinary meal though - it was a culinary experience in a really fun environment, and well worth it.

Outside, the rain continued to hammer down throughout dinner, so I asked the restaurant staff if they could arrange a taxi back up to Eyja Guldsmeden. It seems my Icelandic accent leaves something to be desired – they laughed a lot, and told me to tell the taxi driver wherever I wanted to go.

She, however, had never heard of it so we had to resort to Google Maps. It was a reminder that our hotel, which felt so warm and established, is relatively new in the town, only opened in 2017.

It had been a long, brilliant day and we were really glad to get to bed.

Saturday morning shopping

We woke to bright sunshine, blue skies and the most amazing view from our hotel balcony. Yesterday’s rain gone, it looked like the perfect day to be heading to the Blue Lagoon. But first, breakfast and a bit of Reykjavik retail therapy.

The restaurant was busy, but we enjoyed the same wonderful breakfast buffet as the day before, and then headed towards the horse with skis. As we walked along Laugavegur, we were surprised to see the street so quiet. The morning after Icelandic Beer Day night before, maybe? Then we realised that all the shops were shut. Most of them don’t open until 11am on a Saturday.

It couldn’t have worked out better – that meant we could take one of those lovely side streets off Laugavegur down to the sea and then walk along the front to the harbour.

A beautiful clear day with fantastic visibility, the city looked shiny and new. We walked along to the Viking ship statue that’s not a Viking ship at all, but an ode to the sun, Sun Voyager. Crafted in shining stainless steel and sat on a circle of gleaming granite, it’s a spectacular sight, especially against a bright blue sky. We had to wait a while to get a photo that didn’t feature a load of other tourists.  

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Sun Voyager Sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason

Walking on towards the Harpa we were intrigued to see that rocks had been piled up on the shoreline to to create the impression of people standing on the stones – a sight that reminded us of standing stones we’d seen on the way from the airport.

At the Harpa, we crossed the square, past a cello playing statue. We couldn’t resist trailing our hands in the gently steaming pools of geothermal water that decorate the square. It’s so amazingly warm!

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Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik

From there, we walked up through a small park, dominated by a statue dedicated to the first settlers of Iceland in A.D. 876. That led us back to the other end of Laugavegur where, yay!, the shops were opening. We bought some souvenirs including some beautiful books and postcards from a fantastic book shop, Mál Og Menning, before being totally seduced by the beautiful woollens and crafts in Rammagerdin. My wonderful mother bought Lynda and I the most extraordinarily generous gifts there – beautiful, hand made, Icelandic jumpers designed by Védis Jónsdóttir and inspired by Iceland’s stormy coastline and the shades of the land.

After a quick coffee stop back at Sandholt where we are now regulars, we made our way back to the hotel to grab our swimmers get ready for a 1.30 pick up, destination Blue Lagoon.

Blue Lagoon

As per our wonderful Where The Wild Is itinerary, a Smart bus picked up from the hotel at 1.30pm. It took us to the city bus terminal where we transferred onto a waiting bus, and we were off.

The road to Blue Lagoon heads out of the city in the direction of the airport, so it all felt very familiar. It’s about a 50 minute drive – it didn’t seem long before we could see steam rising in the distance and knew we were nearly there.

Listed as one of National Geographic’s 25 wonders of the world, the Blue Lagoon is in the middle of a black lava field where geothermal sea water comes from holes as deep as 2000 metres, bringing with it natural minerals including algae and white silica mud - said to have skin-repairing and anti-ageing properties.

When the water emerges, its temperature is usually between 37°C and 40°C – like a lovely hot bath. Its famous light blue, milky colour comes from the silica in the water reflecting the sunlight.

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The Blue Lagoon

We got off the bus and followed the path though lava to a glass door, and a massive queue. Not for us though - we had Premium tickets, so sailed right past everyone waiting for standard entry to a desk where a smiling young lady waited for us. She explained how everything works and gave us our wristbands, towels, robes and flip flops. Your wristband opens and closes a locker where you can store all your things, gives you 2 free face masks and one free drink at the pool bar and lets you charge any additional drinks up to a maximum of 3. You just settle up when you leave.  Drinks in the pool, you say? Facemasks, you say? Sounds like heaven. Off we went.

The Blue Lagoon has a strict hygiene code and guests are asked to shower before they go into the spa waters. There’s a lot written (and some funny postcards in Reykjavik) about the Brits reticence to shower naked, but for the modest amongst us there are private shower and changing cubicles. There’s no need to show your bits if you really don’t want to. Excellent piece of Where The Wild Is advice: when you do shower, smother your hair in the conditioner from the dispensers. It will help protect your hair from the silica and algae in the water, that can otherwise take days to wash out.

We wanted to keep our cameras nearby, so we put our robes alongside some others on a wooden locker near the pools edge. This was a mistake – we had to move them later, so much better to take a waterproof phone case so you can have your phone in the water with you. They do sell them at the shop, but they’re probably 10 times what they’ll cost online before you go.

We walked down the steps into the water and it felt fan-tas-tic. The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most visited attractions, so we expected it to be packed. In fact it was busy, but not over run, so easy to find our own little corners to chill. I recommend the waterfall, but you need to be strong to withstand that hot water beating down on your shoulders – it’s very powerful. Beats any spa massage I’ve ever had, and there have been a few J

After a while relaxing in the water, we thought we’d go and try our first facemask. Everyone in the Blue Lagoon gets a free silica mask, Premium or not. Over at the Mask Bar, a lovely attendant slops a ladle full of magical silica into your hands, and you smooth it all over your face, neck and anywhere else you fancy, as long as you avoid your hair and your eyes. They advise you leave it o for 5 to 10 minutes and then just wash it off it the water. It’s good to know at this point that the water in the Blue Lagoon is self-cleansing. It renews itself every 40 hours, all 9 million litres of it.

After a few essential photos, we relaxed in a quiet sunny spot by the side of the lagoon while the silica worked its magic. Then, having washed it off and looking totally stunning obvs, we headed for the pool bar. For your free drink, you can choose from beer, wine or fizz (including a lovely looking strawberry prosecco, which Irene went for). The bar area was busy, so drinks in hand, we wandered over to a quieter space.  

The lagoon is between 0.8m and 1.2m deep – its deepest point is just 1.4m, so it’s easy to walk around (unless you’re 4ft 7in or under).  There weren’t many kids around when we were there, despite entry being free for children 13 and under accompanied by their parents. Children under 8 must wear armbands – they get them free at reception, and children under 2 are not allowed in the water.

After a bit more gliding around the pool, it was time for our second face mask. Now we had the choice of a lava mask to energise our skin and renew it for a brighter and more radiant complexion OR an algae mask to nourish our skin and minimise fine lines and wrinkles. We all went for algae, which felt absolutely wonderful. Again, we were told to keep it on for 5 – 10 minutes, before emerging, probably unrecognisable.

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The Blue Lagoon

We spent just over 2 very happy hours in the Blue Lagoon, including a bit of a wander around the perimeter boardwalk and a peek into the Retreat Lagoon, a private and very much premium experience where you can book in water massage treatments, for the mere cost of your arm and your leg. If money’s no object, why wouldn’t you? There are saunas and steam rooms for everyone, but on such a sunny day, we were very happy gently steaming outside.

As the sun started to go down, it was time to go and dry off, change, and make full use of the hair drying and beautifying stations to get ready for an early dinner at the Blue Lagoon’s Lava Restaurant.

Lava Restaurant

I’d heard rave reviews about this restaurant before leaving on this trip, so this was a meal I was very much looking forwards to. It didn’t disappoint.

We were welcomed at the entrance of the restaurant and invited to store our bags and coats in the foyer or inside the restaurant, as we preferred. We were shown to our table, toward the back of the restaurant, by a glass wall that showed us exactly where we were – beside a 800-year-old lava cliff on the west bank of the Blue Lagoon.
 
The Lava Restaurant has a lovely relaxed atmosphere and the service and the food are superb. Thanks to our premium package, we were greeted with a glass of fizz while we perused the menu and wine list.

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Lava Restaurant at the Blue Lagoon

I went for birch and juniper cured arctic char with horseradish, cucumber, rye bread, pickled mustard seeds to start. Words are not enough. The fish was amazing - as was the grilled beef tenderloin with Icelandic mushrooms, crispy potatoes, shallot and horseradish that followed. The beef was cooked to perfection, and every mouthful a joy. I’m normally more a cheese than dessert person, but the

cheesecake with oats, blueberries and citrus was too tempting to resist. It was a kind of deconstructed cheesecake, with the most delicious and refreshing blueberry ice. We washed it all down with a lovely Sauvignon Blanc – what a meal.

Eating at The Lava Restaurant is not cheap, but then no where in Reykjavik is, and food of this quality is worth paying for. If you’re going to the Blue Lagoon, check out the website for details of the set lunches – they’re great value.

Our return journey to Reykjavik by bus was booked for us, so we relaxed in the restaurant, taking in the Lagoon views from the lounge upstairs, until it was time to go.

The path through lava we followed this afternoon was prettily lit up and led us right back to our waiting bus. We hopped on and travelled back to the city, changing at the terminal again for a Smart bus to drop us to the hotel. It all worked like clockwork – no waiting anywhere, and before we knew it we were back, blissed out and glowing at Eyja Guldsmeden. Another fabulous day over.

Farewell Iceland

Sunday morning saw us up bright and early to shower and pack. Our Private Transfer to the airport was booked for 9am and we wanted to have enough time to make the most of Eyja’s bountiful breakfast for the last time.

When our Private Transfer to the airport arrived and our driver Freyr came in to collect us, we saw we’d be leaving in quite a contrast to the buses and Superjeeps we’d got used to.

We climbed into a gleaming silver Mercedes and settled into very comfortable leather seats, for our journey back to Keflavik, past the Blue Lagoon, the standing stones, the tiny houses and the Fire Service museum.

Our chauffeur drove us straight to departures, where we dropped our bags and headed for the gate, picking up some Icelandic vodka miniatures and Icelandic sweets at Duty Free en route. As a last farewell, we gathered together the last of our krona and, following consultation with a very helpful barman, found we had enough for a coffee and 2 beers. We drank to what had been a really brilliant weekend and then went to board. Our flight was all on time, and less that 3 hours later, we landed back in Bristol for a handy husband pick up, and straight back home where dinner and a birthday cake waited for Irene.

Our trip was over, but it’s one we’ll never ever forget.

"Thank you Where The Wild Is, Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel, Superjeeps.IS and Blue Lagoon. Thank you everywhere else we went and everyone else we met. Thank you Iceland, and thank you Reykjavik. You’re the best"


 

Fiona, Lynda & Irene | Happy Customers
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