A Christmas Treat in Iceland

Saturday 20 to Sunday 28 December

Iceland was not only a new country to explore, it was also an emotional time as our family were all together in a place far from our homes.

It was the culmination of a journey Bruce and I had made over 3 months and Ev & Steph in the last few days, to support Hayden defending his research to be awarded a PhD in Barcelona.

The family choose Iceland as the destination where they would like to spend Christmas together.  The first Christmas Hayden & Evan had been together with us since 2007.

After some consideration and a review of our wardrobes the planning started.

Steph researched places to go and made some suggestions. Emails started flying back and forth as accommodation was reviewed and selected, flights and a rental car were booked and wardrobes for cold weather were updated.

Six of us met at Gatwick airport for the 3.5 hour flight to Reykjavik.

We arrived in the rain, and after finding the bus, a long 35km bus ride into Reykjavik. Dark & cold with icy streets, I really wondered why we were here??

And it was made worse when the first couple of restaurants we tried were too full or closing.

Things improved rapidly as we found a nice meal with excellent beer and wine.

It was an aaaagh moment the next morning when we found the bay of Reykjavik. Calm sea surrounded by snow. How surreal!

We spent the day, or at least the few daylight hours, exploring the small city of Reykjavik. The old town and the Christmas market, the port, the frozen lake and the Hallgrímskirkja (Lutheran Church) on the high point of the city, affording wonderful views of the city surrounded by low mountains.

We had booked into one of the upmarket restaurants “The Fishmarket” and quickly realised how sophisticated and expensive life in Iceland is. We later came to understand that they are a self sufficient and stylish people who read more books each year than any other population.

The next day we set off for our Christmas break in Vik. Steph had done the research and guided us on the northern route of the Golden Circle. We stopped to watch the sun rise over Þingvallavatn (Thingvallavatn) the largest natural lake in Iceland, before continuing to Þingvellir (Thingvellir) to see an area where the tectonic plates of North Atlantic and Europasia are separating – the opposite of what is happening between the plates of North America and The Pacific. We didn’t feel anything – the rate of separation is an average of 3 mm per year. This place is also historically important as the site of the Alþingi, the national parliament, which was founded in the year 930.  Iceland has one of the most democratic constitutions.

Another long drive on icy roads to reach the town of Geysir at sunset, on the shortest day of the year. Geysir gives its name to geysers or hot springs that sporadically erupt. The Strokkur geyser put on a magnificent show for us with 30m bursts of hot water followed by steam. The area is full of shooting geysers and bubbling mud ponds with the expected sulphur smell. It is clearly a popular place for groups of photographers and here we were competing for the best shot as the geyser produced its spurt.

Our accommodation in Vik was a delightful cottage at the end of the village and close to the volcanic black sand beach. Bruce & I opted for the bungalow which meant tip toeing along the icy deck to join the others in the main house. The bonus was a big bed and privacy.

We had shopped before leaving Reykjavik, so we were well stocked with food and beer and wine.

Tour guide Steph had booked a walk on the Svínafellsjökull glacier. Distances between sights are large in this relatively small country and this was a 280km round trip which is challenging when you only have three hours of sunlight with an hour either side of dusk and icy roads.

Walking on a glacier is fun! We had crampons placed on our shoes and were given ice axes and a quick lesson in walking straight and lifting our feet, and off we set. Our guide marvelled at the glaciers she was showing us, explaining that you don’t often get to see the blue ice with such clarity. Dry, cold, windy weather had provided us with perfect conditions.

In fact you may recognise Svínafellsjökull glacier as it has been used in a number of movies and series such as Batman Begins, Interstellar and Game of Thrones.

As visitors from down under, everything related to snow, ice and volcanoes was exciting. Our second day took us to the nearby Reynisfjöru beach where the sun managed to drag itself over the clouds on the horizon. The beach was black volcanic sand and the snow was close to the waters edge. Puffins were nesting in the craggy rocks and the iconic Reynisdrangar stacks danced in the low sunlight. It was magical. The 575 photos we took between the six of us is proof.

From the frozen beach Steph directed us to a couple of frozen waterfalls, complete with the temporary icy tentacles. The first was Skógafoss, a wide tumbling waterfall with a beautiful sea of snow in front of it.  The second waterfall was Seljalandsfoss complemented by a fantastic view to the Heimaey Islands as the sun set. Once again we were stunned by the sheer beauty of this magical land.

It was dusk and 4pm as we returned to our holiday house. We had previously noticed grave yards that were lit up so we took the opportunity to stop. We later learned that the grave sites are decorated with lights and trimmings for Christmas. What a way to enjoy the long dark nights.

Christmas Day dawned grey and dull. After breakfast we did what every Australian loves to do – go for a walk on the beach. Black crunchy sands and icy tracks gave us an unusual challenge. And as the morning light dulled further, much to our delight it started snowing. The snow lasted through our late Christmas dinner with about 10cm piling into the balconies. So we finished Christmas Day with a snow fight, making snow angels and building a snowman. Couldn’t get better.

The sky had cleared on Boxing Day as we drove back to Reykjavik. I was stunned by the beauty of fresh thick snow on the 200km drive.  It was nearly dark when we arrived at Steph’s next suggested stop, the hot thermals of Blue Lagoon. We braved the chilly air and sunk deep into the hot springs with its therapeutic mud, and laughed as snow fell on our heads.

By the time we arrived back in Reykjavik the snow had stopped. We got settled into our hotel and walked into town along the beach front where a massive aurora provided a beautiful light show over the bay.

We had one last day, so we found the Viking museum and learned a little of this harsh, beautiful land and how it had been tamed over the last 1100 years by the Nords who used their Celtic enemies as slaves. Perhaps there were Celtic monks who came before the Nords, but they didn’t leave their mark.

There were moments in our eight days that cameras didn’t come out, but we managed an amazing 4,500 photos of which 2,300 can be attributed to Evan!  A few can be seen below.

The little we saw of Iceland was exotic and exciting. We all feel tempted to return in summer to see this beautiful country in its bright green cloak.