As I hadn’t managed to make it to the pre-trip briefing due to other commitments my first day of the trip was made more exciting by meeting the group I was travelling with for the first time at the airport. My first glance of the group was of the University of Derby logo on what would turn out to be my roommate’s sleeve.
Our first evening was spent wiping away the feel of aeroplane and trying to remember as many names as possible (I still don’t think I remember every name, sorry guys) over a fresh dinner. In a place famous for its delicacy of fermented shark I didn’t arrive with great expectations for the food, so I was grateful to see a fresh salad bar at dinner every night. Our fantastic tour guide Oddur explained to us that the fermented shark delicacy was called hákarl and is traditionally eaten with a drink called ‘black death’, which doesn’t sound ominous at all. Of course, some of our daring group had to try some. I wasn’t one of them.
The group was friendly and made up of Dean’s award winners and soon to be winners of student elections, as well as a core of awesome geology students who spent half the trip teaching the rest of us all about Iceland’s volcanic nature (most of them still can’t pronounce Eyjafjallajokull). But more than that, we had a group of adventurers. Let’s face it; you have to be somewhat adventurous to want to go somewhere called ‘Iceland’ in the dead of winter!
Adventuring Icelandic Style
Our first full day started painfully early. With adventure calling we dragged ourselves out of bed to prepare for a full day out in the Icelandic winter by filling up on breakfast and bundling ourselves up in as many layers as we could physically force onto our bodies before piling into the tour bus by 8am. So we set off bright and early, or rather dark and early, for our first day of planned activities.
When the itinerary had told us we would be hiking a glacier, I don’t think many of us anticipated pulling on a harness along with a hardhat and being handed a pickaxe. Nor did we expect to find ourselves knee high in freezing water, or we might all have been more diligent in testing out our waterproof boots and trousers before we set off.
The glacier, named Sólheimajökull which translates to ‘sun glacier’, took the whole morning to get to and hike, with us finishing well after lunch time. We spent the morning surrounded by the blue, white, black and gold of the glacier. For a whole lot of ice, it sure is colourful.
Next on the agenda was lunch at a little cafe that showcased Iceland’s infamously expensive catering and then on to the Black Beach. The beach was more beautiful than even the most stunning pictures the internet has to offer could prepare me for.
The sand shimmered pitch black, and the sound of the waves was like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I could have been standing on an alien planet. It was easy to see why so many people brave the cold to experience it. We only had time for a 30 minute visit before heading off to our next destination, but I could have happily stayed there for hours taking in the ocean, the sands, and the shadows of the islands a little way out to sea, and the beautiful caves and hexagonal rock formations. In my mind the trip to Iceland would have been worth it for that experience alone.
Our first day was far from over with two more stops to make. The first was Skogafoss and the second was Seljalandsfoss, both waterfalls, both beautiful, both a clear and treacherously icy. It was at this point that we all felt grateful for all of our thick winter layers, if not for the cold but to protect us if we slipped over – which a few of us did.
The Golden Circle
The following day we were up bright and early, though not quite as early as the day before, for our Golden Circle Tour. Starting with Gullfoss, the waterfall, continuing to the Geysirs and finally up to the National Park.
At Gullfoss I learnt what ‘feels like’ temperatures can mean. Up high above the cool spray of the water and at the mercy of the biting wind, we were all feeling far colder even than the -6 Celsius lows of the day. After a little exploring and admiring the stunning view we retreated into the onsite cafe for warmth and hot drinks.
The Geysirs were fantastic but also crowded. I doubt I was the only one who came close to getting frostbitten fingers trying and failing to get a good picture or video of an eruption.
The last visit of the day took us up to Thingvellir. Here you can stand on the European tectonic plate and touch the North American tectonic plate. It’s where they both meet and it’s full of cliffs and crevasses. It’s also where the ancient Vikings gathered to decide and announce laws, settle legal disputes and, to a degree, elect their local leaders. The Icelandic people are incredibly proud of this history of democracy and many of the Icelandic sagas hold this place as a crucial setting.
Reykjavik: The Smoky Bay
The third day the aches set in. Even the fittest among us, and there were a lot of extremely fit group members, admitted to craving a hot bath in one of the thermal springs. Instead we got a walking tour of Reykjavik.
The city is filled with touristy shops, beautiful street art and a lot of statues. Our tour guide walked us from Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church designed to mirror the hexagonal formations found so frequently in Iceland’s unique landscape, and took us through the parliament building, the school, the park, and to the only recently retired prison. The prison looked more like a B & B than a detention centre, learning the story of the founding and naming of Reykjavikon the way.
After lunch we were given the tour of the University of Iceland. There are only seven Universities in the whole country; all are free but for a small enrolment fee.
By chance, the Icelandic Youth Orchestra was performing a free concert at the Harpa. The concert was the unexpected highlight of the day, with music one of my companions stated ‘sounded like Iceland’. It was so relaxing and peaceful, and above all beautiful. It reached the top five of my favourite experiences in Iceland.
We also had a walk on the frozen lake in the middle of town, which for a girl who grew up in the British midlands was a very strange experience.
Chilling in the Non-cold Way
Friday was a social activities day, which meant we were free to do as we liked. Organised activities for the day were a trip up the tower of Hallgrímskirkja and a visit to Perlan Museum. I skipped the former in favour of getting lost in Reykjavik, but made my way back to the group for Perlan. The museum was small and more of a gallery for the most part with interactive exhibits. There was an observation deck at the top and a man made ice cave below. The ice cave was a great experience, though a little cold!
On Saturday we swam in the blue lagoon. I don’t think I need to tell you how amazing it felt after the busy and active week we’d had. My muscles were so ecstatic about the hot mineral enriched water that it was an effort to explore the lagoon. Standing under the waterfall, complimentary face-masks, and a free drink without leaving the pool was luxury like nothing else.
One thing I ought to relate is that you have to have a full shower, completely naked before you can go in any public pool. You will get serious respect from the locals if you don’t use the cubicles, but there are cubicles provided if you can’t face public nudity.
That night was our long awaited outing to see the Northern Lights. It was cold, it was a beautiful night, and the most we saw was a faintly green cloud. Still, we did technically see the Lights.
Sunday, our last full day and a social activity day at that, was the most laid back day of all. After a scheduled trip to the flea market I went to grab a hot chocolate and some souvenirs. That evening I and two others got permission to attend a performance at the Harpa, which was not the kind of performance you might think. The cliff notes performance of the Icelandic Sagas was hilarious and a little informative. RIP the hundreds of murdered sheep boys that most of the sagas seem to begin with.
Then it was last morning of our trip. It was time to say goodbye to Iceland and our lovely driver of the trip Sigi. None of us were quite able to wrap our heads around the fact we’d only been there a week. Our amazing, fantastic, wonderful, unbelievable trip was at an end. We had one last group photo and boarded the plane home, ready to go our separate ways.
Iceland was breath-taking, and I’ll never have another experience like it. It gave me once in a lifetime experiences and introduced me to a whole bunch of amazing people. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
I am, however, desperately jealous of those who still have their University of Derby Travel Awards ahead of them. Honourable mentions: Our beautiful bright pink Derby Uni Passport hats, the seafront two steps from our hotel, the local hot baths, the sulfur scented vapour and shower water, and Oddur’s Hidden People stories.