Iceland wouldn’t have been our first choice for a holiday destination but Christine’s attendance at the EURO 2006 conference gave us (and it seemed, most of the rest of the operational research world) a good excuse to make the trip.
We landed at Keflavik airport around midnight when it was hard to avoid noticing the fact that it was still perfectly light. We transferred to the nearby Motel Alex and fell in to bed. It was perhaps just as well that we hadn’t realised they also had a campsite as, even with the light, I didn’t fancy putting up a tent.
After an ‘interesting’ packed breakfast (orange juice, two bridge rolls, a cheese slice and some jam) we returned to pick up our hire car. Fortunately the rear seats of the Toyota Yaris can be moved forwards as we would have struggled to fit in our bags bulging with camping gear otherwise! We set off along the coast road to see interesting cliffs, lighthouses and thermal pools. However, when the tarmac ran out and we spent half an hour rattling along a road made of increasingly large rocks, we decided to point our little car towards Reykjavík and the island’s main road – Highway 1.
We stopped for the night next to the impressive Skógafoss falls and, the following morning, walked upstream to be greeted by one waterfall after another. After about eight kilometres we were nearing the snowline and, as it was clear that the cloudcover on the tops was there to stay we headed back down the quick way – a 4×4 track.
Next stop was the major connurbation of Vík (population 300). The Icelandic population is only 300,000 and around 80% of those live in the capital city so the rest of the country is pretty sparsely populated. This small town proved to be one of the highlights of the trip though as we walked up the hill and watched the puffins land on the clifftop before swooping down to their burrows in the face below. They were happy to let you get within about 2 metres but, given their small size, I could still have done with a zoom lens. Vík is supposed to be the rainiest spot in Iceland but fortunately the sun shone for us.
From Vík it was a long drive across the featureless sandur to reach Skaftafell National Park where we were staying that night. The following day we started with the standard half day walk that loops around the green central spur of the park sandwiched between the two glaciers. Fortunately we made it back just in time before the heavens opened yet again. It cleared up again briefly in the evening for our trip further along the coast to the eery Jökulsárlón lagoon where large icebergs break off the glacier and float across the lake and out to sea.
We were blessed with some sunshine the next day which was unfortunate as we spent much of it in the car heading back towards Reykjavík. We took in the Golden Circle attractions of the massive falls at Gullfoss and the original Geysir hot spring area. That night we camped at Þingvellir, joining lots of Reykjavík inhabits making the most of the weekend.
Unfortunately the rain was back in force the following day and, having visited the obligatory site of the original Icelandic parliament and trudged through the low undergrowth for a couple of hours, we were happy to climb in the car and finish the journey back to Reykjavík. There we were staying in the relative luxury of a flat which proved to be very pleasant. The Apartmenthouse Forsæla, run by the supremely helpful Hlin, is a very good base for exploring the city.
Two of our evenings were occupied by conference receptions: one at Perlan (an excellent photo subject) and the other at the Blue Lagoon spa (an entirely man-made creation). There was also a 7km race one morning which was our only running whilst we were away. I was beaten in to second place but the local winner was sufficiently serious to be running in a 1500m race that evening.
I amused myself around town whilst Christine attended the conference sessions themselves. One day was spent walking around the city as the sun was shining. The architecture is often mentioned by the guide books but I didn’t find it particular spectacular. More fun (at least with a camera) was the children’s zoo! The next day the rain returned and I bought a tourist pass and visited no end of galleries and museums. Only the Settlement Museum deserves a special mention for its innovative use of technology to turn the otherwise dull remains of a longhouse in to an interesting attraction.
We had half a day when the conference ended and headed out around Hvalfjörður fjord to Reykholt and on to the Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls (the latter cheerfully named after two children that died there). More interesting though were the huge lava tubes at Surtshellir. The tubes go on for kilometers and can be entered (preferably with a guide) at various points were the roof has collapsed. We returned by a more modern tunnel under the fjord but still quite impressive at 7km long.
For our last full day we went out to the Snæfellsjökull peninsula which is well worth a visit (although perhaps we were slightly biased by the glorious sunshine that we enjoyed). Indeed, this was the only complete day we had without any rain. The peninsula coastline is an interesting mix of extinct volcanoes and shaped lava cliffs with plenty of opportunity for walking and the glacier as a permanent backdrop.
The sunshine continued for our last morning as we took a ride up to the top of the prominent Hallgrímskirkju for views over Reykjavík (and the organ is worth a peek as well) and then joined what seemed like a large proportion of the population at the outdoor Laugardals swimming pool, complete with hot tubs.
In summary, Iceland has some fantastic scenery but it’s a shame that it’s hidden behind the rain clouds so much of the time. It also isn’t a country where you could base yourself anywhere for a great length of time – 5 days in the capital was too long and the National Parks can’t sustain more than a couple of days walking each. We’re glad we didn’t attempt a sprint round the whole island though. If we did return, we might seriously consider getting a 4×4 – this is one of the few countries I’ve been to where the (large wheeled) tour buses went places we couldn’t!