A 7.4K hike through this landscape – not really far, but hard going in the terrain and the heat. I’d come down with a cold a couple of days before and this was the worst day by far, trying to breathe through the dry heat while scrambling up rock slopes. So very much worth the views.
Last night in Sydney, before flying out to Alice Springs.
Taken in the first few hours after arriving in Sydney, while we sat at the Opera House Bar. You can see the bridge climb groups as little tiny dots on the left-hand side of the arch. We climbed it a few days after this, too, although there are no cameras or phones or indeed anything allowed up there with you, for obvious reasons; it was sweltering hot and wonderful.
[We spent three nights in Iceland through a package deal with Icelandair. I took stupid amounts of photos, far too many for a single post, so this is part 1.]
I would recommend Iceland to anybody. Everybody. Everybody should go there. Unless your ideal holiday involves lying on a beach in very hot sunshine, in which case maybe you shouldn’t (although, Iceland has beaches, so it’s worth a try, right?) It was amazing, and my only regret is that we didn’t have more time there. I appreciate that more time in Iceland would have meant we couldn’t afford the wedding and all our guests would have been standing round empty tables looking cross while I was scrambling up a glacier outside Skaftafell, but come on now – a glacier. My real friends would understand.
We flew direct from Glasgow to Keflavik, as part of an Icelandair package that included flights, three nights in a Reykjavik hotel, and a whale-watching trip. Which seemed like a pretty good deal given the Iceland’s reputation for being mortgage-your-shoes-for-bread expensive, and also given that the advert said ‘from’ before the price, which is never a good sign. ‘From’ does not mean ‘about’, in my bitter, bitter experience. ‘From’ means more like ‘we have one seat on one flight and one bedroom in one hotel somewhere we can do for this price, but the rest of you are not going to be so lucky.’
Not so with Iceland. In Iceland, ‘from’ meant ‘from’. Because Iceland is a very sensible country. (Okay, apart from the credit-boom-followed-by-massive-economic-collapse situation – but even there, Iceland’s response to the crisis has been sane and humane enough to pull the country back towards recovery.)
The flight took two hours and was fine, although alas, the plane we were on was the one passenger plane in their whole fleet that didn’t have interactive screens in the back of its seats. Do you know how much I’ve looked forward to the day when I can fly on a plane with an interactive screen in the back of the seat in front of me? Do you know how many times I’ve somehow managed to end up on planes without them, even on airlines that always always always have screens in the back of seats? I appreciate I shouldn’t grumble too much, because as curses go it’s not the worst one I could have ended up with, but bah all the same. And kudos to Icelandair for handing out PSPs (seriously!) to make up for the lack of screens.
The first impression you get of Iceland is a very, very odd-looking landscape. At first, and for a longish time, it’s just a distant landmass in a brownish colour with whitish bits. Then you get close enough to pick out glaciers and rivers flowing from them down into the sea, and that’s pretty amazing all by itself. But then you come in low over the south-west corner of the island to land at Keflavík, and you get a closer look at the landscape beneath you, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s lava fields covered in moss and lichen, a strange greyish colour in May, and it feels like you’re coming in to land on Venus.
You’re not, though. You’re landing at Keflavík, a clean and tidy and airy airport with suitably Nordic polished-wood floors, and signs in a language you can already tell you have have no hope of ever grasping.
Keflavík airport is about forty minutes away from Reykjavik by bus, but we went to the nearby-ish Blue Lagoon first, because our flight back was at Ungodly Early O’Clock and so we wouldn’t have a chance on the way back. For all the advertising the Icelandic tourist industry throws at you about the Blue Lagoon – literally, you see the first advert for it about three minutes after stepping off a plane, a split-screen picture of a man sat dismally on a suitcase in an anonymous airport lounge against the same man blissfully relaxing in opaque turquoise water – it’s difficult to know what to expect from the place itself. It looks sort of strange and magical, but also – if you’re cynical – sort of expensive, and possibly full of people trying to sell you individual massage packages and weird pseudoscientific babble about the magical properties of mud. But those pictures, that water, the idea of a geothermal spa – I could not resist going all the way to Iceland, and then missing it.
So we went, and I am very, very pleased to report that the Blue Lagoon (Bláa lónið in Icelandic) was amazing. It was not horrendously expensive – not cheap, but definitely justifiable in the hey-we’re-on-holiday! bracket – and did not try to upsell us to any individual massage aromatherapy whateveritis package, and it was a truly wonderful and brilliant experience.
(Nothing against individual massage aromatherapy whateveritis packages, of course. If that’s your thing, go wild! I’m just squeamish about the idea of people touching and poking and prodding at me, is all – it sounds far too much like physiotherapy, and physiotherapy is not in the same timezone as fun. And hands! And nails! And underarm-waxing! And eyebrow-shaping! I fail to see any sense in which this is ‘pampering’, and the very thought of a 60-minute pedicure makes me want to hide under the sofa with both my feet crammed into my mouth.)
The Blue Lagoon (Bláa lónið, in Icelandic) exists because of the waste water from a nearby power plant. No, no, I know what you’re thinking, but stop right there. It’s a geothermal power plant (almost all the electricity consumed in Iceland is geothermic or hydroelectric, and most of the buildings are heated with geothermal energy too), using geothermal water from boreholes to heat up spring water which is used for central heating. Once it’s cooled down a bit, the geothermal water, full of salt and minerals, is pumped out into the lagoon. It’s a weird opaque light-blue colour by this point, and it’s really striking against the black lava rocks of the landscape:
There were actual gasps on the coach when we drove past the first pools of blue water, and I am not surprised. It looks alien, unreal; it looks like it’s missing Captain James T. Kirk in a fetchingly-ripped shirt, jumping from island to island.
The buildings themselves are wood and glass, sunk down and well-camoflaged in the landscape. Inside, our admission fee paid for bracelets with electronic tags, which operated the lockers as well as let us pay for drinks and refreshments at the bar. Towel hire was extra, and would possibly have been annoying if we hadn’t known about it in advance, but we did so it was fine (and bathrobes and slippers were also available to hire, for those who really wanted to lounge in style). It’s well-organised, it’s popular, it’s busy – and yet it still feels like you’re on another planet.
The water ranged from pleasantly warm to close-to-roasting depending on how close to the vents you got, a nice contrast to the cold chill in the air outside. There’s so much salt that it’s easy to swim, although you don’t need to – it’s mostly shallow, and even in the deeper areas the water only came up to my neck. (It murdered my hair, though. You go to the Blue Lagoon, you need some industrial-strength conditioner, take my word for it.)
People were relaxed and happy everywhere you looked. And why wouldn’t they be? We were floating around in magma-heated turquoise-coloured water, for heaven’s sake, and there was a swim-up bar serving beer and ice-cream. Iceland being a sensible country, there was no problem with eating and drinking in the pool; photography was fine, so long as you didn’t blame anybody else if you dropped your camera in the water. I held onto mine with the strength of a boa constrictor.
In the Blue Lagoon’s own shops and online, they sell this white mud in little pots and bottles for scorchingly expensive sums of money. In the lagoon itself, though, there’s buckets of it to use as you like. You do not look stupid, because at least half of everyone else there is also intermittently wearing white mud on their face – but you might want to make sure you wash it all off afterwards:
It’s supposed to be exfoliating and refreshing, and to make your skin look younger. Since I’d got IDed for buying drinks at Glasgow airport a mere few hours beforehand, I was already feeling pretty pleased about how young it looked (thank you forever, airport pub man!), but I was surprised to find that it actually did make my skin feel all soft and smooth and happy afterwards. I doubt it’s worth sixty euros – I doubt anything with a ten-minute lifespan is worth sixty euros – but it definitely does something, all right. My skin still feels appreciated in a way it’s never been appreciated before.
We only had an hour or so to float around before getting on the coach to Reykjavik, but it was oh so very much worth it. All airports should be built twenty minutes away from one of these.