Iceland 2003



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The Idea

The idea started over the course of a meal with our friends Tim and Erla. Tim was one of two people who interviewed me when I changed careers after thirty years in banking. Working in the software business is often thought of as a younger man's game but gradually people are realising that experience from other careers is valuable. My banking orientated CV had some relevance to the job I was seeking but there was also an act of faith on Tim's part, for which I will always be grateful. Anyone over 50 trying to get a job, never mind change career, will understand. Tim and I remained personal friends when we later went on to different companies.

Tim met Erla on a web site course that he was running. Although there is a generation age gap between my wife Gill and myself compared with Tim and Erla, we all get on well. Tim was made redundant earlier this year so he and Erla decided to see if they could both find work in Iceland, which is Erla's home. Over the course of a "goodbye" meal, the idea for this holiday was hatched.

I hope the account will be of interest to anyone considering a holiday in Iceland. In part it is a diary but it is also meant to show a what a wonderful place Iceland is, even out of season.

Please do use the Contact menu to ask any questions you may have.

An Introduction to Iceland

Iceland is a country of just 289,000 people living in 103,000 sq km. For comparison, England is 130,433 sq km. About 190,000 people live in Reykjavik and the second city of Akureyri is populated by just 16,000 people, so you will get an idea of how spread out the rest of population is. Essentially only the coastal areas are inhabited as the interior is either lava desert or ice field. It is unspoiled by tourism and completely natural. Once you are away from populated areas, much of the landscape is as it would have been millions of years ago and it can be like having landed on uninhabited planet. Indeed, parts of Iceland were used by the Apollo astronauts to test their moon buggies as there are areas here that are more like the surface of the moon than anywhere else on earth. Don't think it is all just rock and lava though, there are also big areas of outstanding beauty.

It is quite easy to drive for long periods without seeing another vehicle once you are away from Reykjavik and Akureyri, even on the main road between those cities you can travel fifteen minutes or more without seeing anyone. This is a country that should be on everyone's list of places to visit.

For anyone familiar with the UK, think of going to Scotland and stopping on the way in the Lake District. When you get to the Lake District, you look at the mountains and it all seems so beautiful that you wonder if it is worth going on to Scotland. When you get to Scotland, there is something more. Now think of going from Scotland to Iceland and you will get that same something extra.

Join us on a day by day account of our journey.

Day 1 - Sunday 28/9/03 - Arrival

Iceland's tourist season is approximately June to mid September. October is in theory the wettest month. It was amusing therefore that when we arrived for our first visit in July 2001 it was raining sideways but this time it was brilliant sunshine! Tim and Erla picked us at the airport in their car and we set off for Reykjavik. It didn't take long before we had the only car problem of the whole journey, a very flat tyre.


In Iceland studded tyres are necessary in winter so many people keep a spare set of wheels rather than change the tyres on the rim. From the pile of wheels in the garage, someone had put the wrong spare in the car so a family rescue was mounted and we were soon under way. After a coffee with Erla's mother, Solveig, Tim and Erla took us on a tour of Reykjavik including showing us a road where the elves live. A whole road of houses had been planned but when the builders had just blasted away enough lava to enable them to build the first house, they came to lava that resisted their efforts. It is accepted that if they cannot blast away the lava, this is the elves way of telling them that they live there and must be left alone. So this road just has one house, and of course the elves.

As we toured around, the weather just kept improving and the day ended up being more like a beautiful summer evening, particularly as the light in Iceland has a unique mellowness as the sun sets at this time of year. It was a wonderful start to the holiday.

Next we went to the apartment we had booked in Reykjavik. For anyone planning a trip under their own steam, I would recommend the Luna Apartments. We had a comfortable lounge, a bedroom with the most comfortable hotel bed we have had and a shower room. It is literally five minutes walk to Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavik and there is a small shop just around the corner for supplies.

Finally we had an excellent meal at the local Italian restaurant.

Day 2 - Monday 29/9/03 - Off to the summerhouse

Tim and Erla had arranged to pick us up late morning to give us some time in Reykjavik. We found the Viking long boat sculpture in the harbour and had a walk around before finding The Reykjavik Bagel Company which serves up an excellent coffee and various goodies (or perhaps that should be naughties). Then we walked up to Hallgrimskirkja. This is the largest church in Iceland and it dominates the Reykjavik skyline. You will see it in some shots later in the holiday.



The first thing to do after being picked up was go shopping for the first week's supplies. So off to the very modern Kringlan Shopping Centre. As well as many Icelandic stores there were some of the more familiar ones such as The Body Shop. All alcohol, apart from some low alcohol beers, is sold in the state liquor stores and entering one of these is a truly frightening experience. Boxes of wine seemed the best value at just £25 each! A good tip for anyone needing to phone home is to go into a Siminn phone shop and see if your mobile will run off one of their pay-as-you-go cards. Mine did and for £25 I got a card that included £17 of calls. Texting the UK costs just 7p and calls were also very cheap, certainly much better value than using my Vodafone from Iceland. We and other members of the family will be going back so we will get good value from that. With all the shopping done, we just needed some lunch so we pulled into one of the petrol station Sjoppas. The range is based on hot dogs, burgers and chicken but all done so much better than in the UK. The sjoppas are very popular and judging from the cars, appeal to a wide range of people. Then it was off towards Gulfoss where we had a summerhouse booked for the next four nights.

Summerhouses are mainly owned by companies and trade unions, though some are owned by wealthier individuals. Generally they are not available to foreigners but we had the advantage of Erla's family very kindly making arrangements for us all to stay in this summerhouse and a flat in Akureyri. If you are planning a trip and this idea appeals, it is worth making enquiries as some of the privately owned ones can be rented, the big difference being cost. The company and trade union owned properties are let out at low rents, particularly out of season, and are effectively a perk. Inside they are very comfortable with absolutely unlimited hot water. If the hot water runs out here, the planet is in serious trouble as the water is all naturally heated by the earth's core and if that goes cold...

An identical summerhouse

A view from our summerhouse


From Reykjavik, we took an indirect route via Thingvellir and again enjoyed wonderful sunshine. I recommend the more northerly route which takes in some beautiful scenery. Thingvellir is the site of the old Icelandic parliament where the chieftains met to decide the laws that were then handed down to the masses by the lawspeaker. It is no more than a site and the picture below is the landscape that the lawspeaker would have seen from the Logber, a rock used for this purpose. Apart from the buildings, little will have changed. The natural lay of the land was ideal for the purpose.



When we arrived at the summerhouse, the sun was again turning to the mellow gold sunset. Gulfoss is said to be its best at sunrise and sunset so we unpacked very hastily and made it to the falls just in time. I think perhaps we missed the very best light but it was still wonderful and at this time of year and day, we had the place entirely to ourselves. We found a route to literally within inches of the water in safety as you can see in these shots.



After dinner, we experienced something that should be on everyone's list of things to do before you die. Two hours in an outdoor hot-tub at near freezing temperatures with a blonde less than half your age, a good malt whisky, a sky full of stars and the first display of the northern lights. Oh, and of course respective partners! During the course of the evening, we counted no less than five shooting stars and were able to track a number of satellites.

Day 3 - Tuesday 30/9/03 - Hekla

Geysir was very close to the summerhouse so this was our first stop en route to Hekla. Geysir is both the name of the area and the main pool in the springs. The name means Gusher and has been given to geysers worldwide. Geysir itself very rarely spouts; at one time and in the interests of tourism it was forced to spout by lobbing in about forty pounds of soap which soon had the desired effect. Now however, the authorities have decided this is perhaps not the best idea and it is left to its own devices. Alongside is Strokkur (The Churn) which spouts every five minutes or so.


Then we headed off towards Hekla, our main objective for the day and a chance to see as much of the interior as you can without a four wheel drive vehicle. It is about 5,000 feet or 1,491 metres high and is the most active volcano in Iceland. We got to Vatnsfell at a height of 1,700 feet and were within 30 miles of Vatnajokull, the largest ice cap in Iceland. The lava fields are vast and the whole landscape is lunar. You really get a feeling of being on an uninhabited planet. No wonder the Americans used this country for testing their moon vehicles.


En route

En route

En route







Our journey to Hekla took us past Skalholt. This was the church where the Bishops of Iceland were consecrated until the end of the eighteenth century. We also stopped at Thjodveldisbaer (Bull River Valley), a reconstruction of traditional turf covered dwelling. The ruins of the original building are a few kilometres away and are preserved by the authorities. Both the reconstruction and the ruins, which are covered by a shed, are only open for a few months of the year but typically we found nobody saw any need to lock it. We had torches and were able to have a look inside as well.

Skalholt in the distance





On the way back, we took a small detour off the main road to Gaukshofdi. This took us some 200 feet above the road and gave us an excellent view point.



A short while further on, we saw the most magnificent sunset. These pictures can only give you some idea of the colours we saw.

Day 4 - Wednesday 01/10/03 - Rain

In the hope of finding some better weather than at the summerhouse, we set off to the town of Selfoss. The weather didn't improve so we decided to return but took a detour via the Eden Garden Centre. This is all under glass and has a cafe where we picked some rather yummy cakes to cheer ourselves up. Bet you didn't know bananas are grown in Iceland!!


As if the rain were not enough, when we got back to the summerhouse, the kitchen had a definite whiff. Eventually we discovered the juice from some lobster tails had run into the overflow that was immediately above the motor and gently heating it! Thank goodness for that outside hot tap and the hose to wash it clean! Well volunteered Tim.

The weather did improve in the evening so Tim prepared the hot tub again!

This IS Tim, not an escapee from Lord of The Rings.


Day 5 - Thursday 02/10/03 - The Myrdalsjokull Glacier

Today's destination was the Myrdalsjokull glacier, the route there took us via Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss (pronounced scorefoss). Afterwards we went on to Vik and then the return journey saw another magnificent sunset. In all, rather a wow of a day.

Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss are only a few miles apart so I have combined the pictures below. The last one does just show the magnificent rainbow effect.

Seljalandsfoss 1

Seljalandsfoss 2

Another overcrowded car park


Skogafoss 1

Skogafoss 2


Then we headed off for the Myrdalsjokull glacier. Not quite what you expected? As the glacier moves down the valley, it scrapes the lava and acquires this rather dirty look. We found a point at which we could get on the glacier and we had a short walk. We didn't have the right shoes though and to attempt more would have been rather silly. The policy was to only do silly in the evenings!



When we reached Vik, the most southerly point in Iceland, the staff in a shop we visited were warning people not to continue further east unless it was essential as strong winds were building up. It had been our plan not to go further east so we started our return journey. Along the way, we stopped off at Dyrholaey. The winds here were pretty strong by now and we had to take care when opening the car doors. It was difficult for us to stand still enough to take these pictures.


When we got back to the summerhouse after seeing another spectacular sunset, we were treated to Svinahnakki, a very tasty bacon joint. Do try it if you get the chance. Strong winds meant that we only spent a short time in the hot tub before going to bed for a relatively early night. Then just as we got into bed there was a cry of "Northern Lights". This was more spectacular than the previous view. Whilst not at full glory in terms of colour, it covered a larger than usual area of the sky and you just stood and gazed, almost oblivious to the fact that the temperature was below freezing.

Day 6 - Friday 03/10/03 - Towards Akureyri

The rule for using a summerhouse is that you leave it as you would wish to find it so the first task of the day was packing and cleaning. Once everything was in the car, the final task was to make sure everything was secured against the wind as at this time of year, it could be weeks before the next visitors. The heating is left on as it wastes no resources and prevents other damage that could occur. Then it was back to Reykjavik to swap luggage and arrange car hire.

Tim and Erla's car had done a wonderful job and been very comfortable. For the longer journey to Akureyri and the predicted weather requiring studded tyres, it was felt a hire car was appropriate. Normally studded tyres cannot be fitted before October 15th but it is permitted when snow is forecast. We hired the car from as a search from the UK had shown them to be the best value. Cars are expensive in Iceland so it follows that car hire will be expensive, particularly when you consider that much of the income has to be generated during just three months of the year. We had a Toyota Avensis for one week at a cost of £300. Look at some other sites to appreciate this was good value. They prepared the car quickly including changing the wheels and delivered it to us. The only complaint was that we left the car at our friends house for Rascar to pick up and it took a week, a couple of phone calls and an email before they did. Our concern was that they would attribute any damage that might occur in that week to us. No problems did arise and they only charged the agreed amount. I would use them again but I would return the car to them.

Whilst we were waiting for the car, we went to Beggi's bakery for some lunch. Beggi is Erla's sister's partner and also an Icelandic wrestling champion. We had some excellent snacks and being "family" were given a generous discount and then as we left, Beggi presented us with a chocolate cake for later. A quick trip to the bank nearly proved expensive as they had given me the US dollar rate for my sterling travel cheques. A leather credit card holder was quickly presented by way of apology! The final stop was another trip to the liquor store as we had exhausted the first supply.

We had planned to make Akureyri that night but by the time we left Reykjavik, this was already in question. The vote was to drive for a while and make the decision en route according to progress. As we approached Blonduos, the effects of a long day, the light failing and the snow beginning to fall steadily, we decided to stop for the night and rent a cabin. This is like a mini summerhouse and designed for a family overnight stop. Erla and Tim kindly volunteered to take the small bunk beds. The only place for a meal was the petrol station but, as before, the food on offer was good and the size of Tim and Erla's pizza was just unbelievable, you'll hear more about this in tomorrow's account.

Day 7 - Saturday 04/10/03 - We reach Akureyri

This was one decision to stop that we will never regret. We woke in the morning to find several inches of snow had fallen overnight and the views were just wonderful. As we were on the main route between the two main cities in Iceland, the road had been kept pretty clear and we were fine with the studded tyres. The pictures will do more justice than my words and you can see how we dealt with what was left of the pizza.

Suddenly, cold pizza seemed like a good idea. The box was only big enough for what was left from the night before and it provided breakfast for the four of us!




All the way along, we were like children seeing snow for the first time. It was all so different from our previous visit and had a different beauty. There are some things you only see outside the normal tourist season and this was one.

After picking up the keys we found the flat in Akureyri and it was perfect for our stay here. The only problem was that we had taken the wrong bedding so it was off to a shop described as a cheap version of Ikea, it quickly became known as Takea! (A little unfair as it served our purposes well and we found some other useful things there.)

This is a view from the flat which is in a similar block to the one you can see.



Still like excited kids, we wanted to play, not stay indoors. Erla knew the route up the mountain to the bottom of the ski lift and that's where we went to see magnificent views back over Akureyri. Although it is the second city, the population is only 16,000. Being protected by mountains on three sides means that in summer it can often enjoy better weather than Reykjavik, even though it is further north. Another claim to fame is that this is where Erla was born!


After a drive around some local "roads" (= good forest tracks!), we went into Akureyri for a coffee. We then turned onto the causeway bridge leading out of the city and saw the most stunning reflections in the water.


The day finished at the local Chinese, Peng Peng's. If you get to Akureyri, do try it, we had a very good meal.

Day 8 - Sunday 05/10/03 - Rain again!

Before leaving England we had bought various items of rain gear expecting to need it every day. We had enjoyed such good weather that we could not complain about the second, and last, day of rain in what is supposed to be the wettest month. Nonetheless, what to do? Being Sunday and out of season, Tourist Information was shut. Then we saw a poster that appealed so off we went.



We went back to the flat and Erla cooked the best breaded haddock that I have had. Then we demolished a box of wine! With Gill not drinking alcohol because of migraine problems, you might appreciate the rest of the evening got a bit hazy. At some stage though, Erla presented Tim with his Wedding Band which is used as an engagement ring in Iceland. This was a lovely moment for us as well as for them.


Day 9 - Monday 06/10/03 - Lake Myvatn (Midge Lake)

Lake Myvatn is known the summer as midge lake and a net over your head is essential. Oh how lovely to be able to walk around it free of those midges! A short way into our journey, we realised that we were low on fuel but the map told us it was better to go on. These are some pictures of the first part of the journey which took us to Godafoss, the falls of the Gods.


We made it to Godafoss with an indicated range of just 25km so it was with a big sigh of relief that we saw the petrol station in the first picture was open.

Tim and Erla snogging

"Tim, stop it, they're filming us"


Then it was on to Lake Myvatn. The pictures really do not do it justice, it is difficult to photograph snow scenes well.


Our return journey took us via Dimmuborgir, the home of the trolls...


... and then Hvellir. The yellow is sulphur so this was not the most pleasant smelling part of Iceland. Nearby, we stopped to photograph a lonely horse who was way across a field. He came straight across to us as if he wanted the company.


Day 10 - Tuesday 07/10/03 - Husavik

This was one of our favourite towns on our previous visit which made it especially pleasing that we woke to glorious sunshine for our trip to Husavik. On the way was passed Halli's father (you'll "meet" Halli later). Shortly afterwards we got a phone call to say that the formalities for the house that Tim and Erla are buying with Halli and Erla's sister, Solveig had all gone through OK. The more observant may have noticed that Erla's mother is also called Solveig. If I now tell you that sister Solveig also has a daughter named Solveig, you will understand how complicated it could all get.

Husavik proclaims itself as the Whale Watching capital. Officially the Whale Centre was closed but we were lucky that a carpenter was doing some work and we were able to see just inside the entrance. We learned that one or two boats were still doing whale watching trips but unfortunately they would not go out. At first we thought it was because there were only four of us but we realised later that they had probably heard the weather forecast. The pictures will explain, see the change in the short time we were there.

That's snow, not a poor picture!


Day 11 - Wednesday 08/10/03 - Around Akureyri

We went out late and spent most of the day ambling around Akureyri, unfortunately we did not take many pictures. At this time of year the church is not normally open to visitors but Tourist Information told us how we could find someone who would let us in. Erla was christened in this church and the font you will see is the one used for her christening. Another point of interest is that during the Second World War, the British sent the stained glass from Coventry Cathedral to Iceland for safe keeping. With the loss of Coventry Cathedral during the war and the building of a very different cathedral, the decision was made to leave the glass with the Icelanders and it was built into this church.


The Church at Night


After the church we went outdoor swimming in a temperature of about three degrees. The pool was filled with geothermally heated water and the temperature was about 34 degrees. With hot tubs and steam rooms it was in fact a very pleasant experience.

In the evening we went back into Akureyri for a meal and to join in the Runta! This is the modern equivalent of promenading. The young drive around in their cars, which cover pretty much the whole spectrum, trying to look as cool as possible. The aim is to attract the opposite sex or show off your girlfriend/boyfriend. Chatting on mobile phones is part of the scene so with me on the mobile, Tim surfing the internet on his laptop and the girls in front, we were pretty cool! In Reykjavik, each circuit of the runta takes perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes. Akureyri is a little smaller so it took about three or four minutes!

Day 12 - Thursday 09/10/03 - Return to Reykjavik

We awoke to find there had been quite a heavy snowfall which was not quite what we wanted for our return journey of 389 kms (245 miles). The first part of our journey was slow because of the roads and there were a couple of off road vehicles (except they weren't meant to be off road!).

The car park outside the flat

A close up of the ski lift from the flat

The local roads 1

The local roads 2


Erla did a wonderful job driving and we never felt less than entirely safe. The conditions improved as we got further south but not before we encountered this poor man trying to do some work on a phone mast. What the pictures do not show is the strong wind that was blowing but just look at the exposed nature of the area.



Once we were back in Reykjavik, we had some lunch and then went to one of Iceland's more unusual tourist "attractions", the Phallological Museum. I'll leave this one to the pictures and your imagination! [The Museum has since moved to Husavik, see Day 10. I would love to have been there when the owner phoned the removal company and told them what he wanted moved!]



In the evening we had an excellent Vietnamese meal in Reykjavik.

Day 13 - Friday 10/10/03 - The Blue Lagoon

In the morning Gill and I went for a walk by the Tjorn (Lake), then along Laugavegur, the main shopping street and finally back up to Hallgrimskirkja for another look before returning to our apartment at the Luna.



The highlight of today was The Blue Lagoon. At Svartsengi just outside Reykjavik, superheated water from far below the earth's surface is used to provide water for heating and electricity. The run-off water is fed into a lake rich in salt and other minerals. This lake is known as The Blue Lagoon and it is a very popular spa. We spent two wonderful hours in the water even though the air temperature was only around 4 degrees centigrade. For obvious reasons we didn't have the camera inside but we did take some pictures of the surrounding area. The route took us along the road to the airport and for part of the journey we followed the President of Iceland.

No not the car immediately in front!




After that we went to The Pearl but I'll cover that tomorrow as we went back to allow Gill to take some slides. In the evening we had a meal with Halli and Solveig who you will finally meet tomorrow.

Day 14 - Saturday 11/10/03 - The Pearl and The Family

Today's agenda was The Pearl in the morning, present shopping in the afternoon and meeting the family in the evening.

The Pearl

The Pearl is an interesting place. Essentially it is four water towers holding 24million litres (5 million gallons) of hot water to supply Reykjavik. The designers included a glass roofed dome with a balcony and a central area enabling the building to also serve as a centre for various events. The dome contains a restaurant and the balcony affords wonderful views over Reykjavik. The sculptures outside are four musicians playing invisible instruments.

The Building


Views from The Pearl


A man made geysir at The Pearl


After visiting The Pearl, we all went into Reykjavik and went to the church where Erla's parents and sister were married. Perhaps Tim and Erla's wedding will be here too? The other pictures are of the nearby area.

The grass you can just see behind the church is the grass you can see in the pictures below.

The Hotel Borg below and right is Reykjavik's premier hotel.



The Family

Although we had met various members of the family during our holiday, this was an opportunity for us to enjoy a traditional Icelandic meal with them all together. Tim and Erla had managed to get the fishmonger to prepare some fish even though he was not officially open. With (sister) Solveig joining in, an excellent fish pie topped with potatoes was then prepared and served.

The previous evening, a very young cat had climbed in through a window and was obviously hungry. It declined to go away so some tuna was put in a dish and the cat was clearly hungry although it was not malnourished and appeared healthy. In the morning it wandered off but it returned again tonight. You can see it made itself at home and was quite happy with children. A few days later after visiting all the neighbours with no luck, an advert found the true owners. I have never seen a cat take so readily to children and be so gentle.

Iris, Beggi, Solveig and Halli

Halli, Erla and Solveig

Christian and Theodora

Theodora and the stray cat


After a wonderful evening where the family made us feel so welcome and fed us so well, we returned to our apartment sad that the holiday was soon to come to an end.

Day 15 - Sunday 12/10/03 - Culture House and Home

The Culture House is in the grand buildings of the former National Library and houses an excellent exhibition of Viking history. It is well worth a visit and as a bonus, we found that it is free on Sunday!

Sadly though the time came for Tim and Erla to pick us up and take us to Keflavik for our return flight home. The end of a truly wonderful holiday.


Before we left England, I emailed some friends asking if they thought my wife and I were mad going to Iceland at this time of year. Our own view was "probably, but let's do it anyway", after a very hot summer here, the idea of some cold weather appealed and we were willing to risk the rain, of which we saw very little. Now I have to say that in many ways this trip was better than our first holiday that was in season! We were, of course, incredibly lucky with the weather but the Icelanders have a saying, there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. All we had needed was a decent warm jacket, a hat and gloves.

A holiday with local people does of course have something extra about it and it was so nice to spend this fortnight with our friends Tim and Erla. As I said earlier, they are a generation younger than us but that never really featured. They did so much for us for which we will always be grateful.

Would we go again at this time of year? Yes! The weather risk is perhaps higher but so too were the rewards.

Links and Information


The main tourism website. Many useful links including accommodation at all prices.

For car hire, see Day 6.


Other Information

I recommend two guide books. The Insight Guide (in association with Discovery Channel) is an excellent book with a wealth of really excellent photographs. The Rough Guide is excellent with its down to earth opinions and useful information about getting around. I suggest that it is worth buying both books.