Iceland December 2013: Reykjavik & Spas

My flight was delayed yesterday, so I didn’t arrive until around midnight – didn’t get to my hotel until 1.30/2am. I saw the Northern Lights from the plane – not very bright at first, so I wasn’t sure whether I was seeing the last of the sunset or the reflection of the plane’s lights off the cloud below us but eventually they brightened and the cloud faded and it became very obvious that this great arc of pale light in the sky was definitely the Northern Lights. It wasn’t doing much and it wasn’t very bright but it was definitely there.

We must have landed around midnight. It was snowy – proper cold bite in the air, deep crispy snow winter wonderland. No problems with the bus. I was delivered to my hotel, checked in, caused some confusion by having booked two nights, then three nights rather than five nights in one go. At 1.30am, trying to explain this was impossible. “It’s two bookings” got me two room cards rather than the dates changed on my sign in sheet. But that could be sorted out later. For now, it was long past time for bed. And it was snowing outside – big fat fluffy snowflakes.

I got up late in the morning and had breakfast. But when I left my room, there was a bag hanging on the door. The Yule Lads had been! I flung the bag on my bed for later investigation and went for breakfast. The orange juice was running low so I had a bit of whatever said appelsin next to it – ended up with a cocktail of something vaguely orange-flavoured but very watery. I don’t know how I missed the apple juice sitting right next to it. Since apparently I get laughed at for describing the food, I’m going to carry on. There were cakes and biscuits of all kinds, presumably because it’s Christmas, as well as the more traditional breakfast – cereal, bread, dried fruits and nuts and things for the muesli, fish, eggs, chunks of orange, coffee, tea, milk and so on. I had cereal – giant Coco Pops because it just wouldn’t be Iceland without giant Coco Pops and some bread and butter and apple juice and then my ability to eat ran out and I went back upstairs to get ready.

Job one was to open my mysterious bag. I had been visited by Þvörusleikir, Spoon-Licker, one of the Yule Lads and he’d brought me food – two little nut and seed sticks coated in chocolate.

I planned to go into Reykjavik and the city centre is a mile and a half away. First I entertained myself watching a digger clearing the car park while I tried to get a brush through my hair – two days in London had killed it – and then I put on all the warm clothes I had and packed any others and went to investigate the claims of free bus use.

I was given a bus pass to borrow until I depart. I just show it to the drive and I can use the entire Reykjavik bus network. My bus would be the 19 to Hlemmur, the main bus station at the eastern end of Laugavegur, just down from the first hotel I stayed in here. But it didn’t go until 12.07 and it was only quarter to eleven so I walked in after all. I was doing fine until I got to the footbridge over the Ringroad. In the snow, I completely lost my bearings and only got to Tjornin more by luck than judgement. It was amazing – frozen solid and so snow-covered that you can’t tell where the pavement ends and the lake begins. I daresay it’s fine to walk on but I’m not going to be stupid enough to try it. Obviously I stopped to enjoy my favourite part of Reykjavik – the abundance of ducks, geese, swans and gulls in the corner of the Tjornin. They’re so noisy! I was taking photos and I turned round to walk up to the other bit of platform when I realised I was standing on someone’s foot. No one there. I looked down. There was a pink-footed goose struggling to escape me. I thought I was dead. I thought the goose would attack me and break my legs but it just wandered off once its foot was free. Now, the fact that I managed to stand on its foot without even noticing means it had crept up behind me and come very close – I wonder what it had been planning?

I did my usual round of tourist shops in Ingolfstorg, then I spied Esja through the streets and ran across to the old harbour, round Harpa and to the seafront to greet my favourite volcano. I’m very much in love with Esja and she’s very pretty when she’s covered in snow. Yes, I talk to this extinct volcano.

Next stop was back to Austurstraeti to get some cash. My card was declined so I went to ask at the tourist information where there was another machine. They said there was one right opposite the one I’d been at but there have been problems with the machines. Yes, there certainly have. It got rejected at that one too. I used my last 500kr note to buy my favourite Hals lemon sweets and then did some food shopping before walking up Laugavegur. Some shops have changed since the summer – the old record shop, which was something else over the summer is something else again – I forget what, but it was very obvious it had changed. The photo shop has moved.

I’ve never been to Hlemmur before – and I now understand when the guidebook says pronounce both if it’s a double letter. I thought the lady at reception was saying Hlemnur when she was telling me where to go but she’s just saying the M twice. It’s the main bus station and it’s been thoroughly yarnbombed inside. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve also never been on a Straeto before. I showed my card and sat down and it rumbled along Snorrabraut, past the BSI long distance bus station and across to my hotel. Now it was properly light, I could see my view properly. I overlook the Perlan – the Pearl. Every time I look at it, I hear Jack Sparrow’s voice saying “It’s the Pearl…”. I can also see snowy mountains and pointy church I don’t recognise. Only the Pearl is visible in the dark, which is what my view more usually is. I ate and then ran downstairs to the spa.

It’s very purple and there’s a sign on the wall recommending floating. To float really well and relaxingly, put on a flotation cap and put a noodle under your knees. The flotation cap is a kind of foam padded neoprene helmet and the noodle is one of those long thin foam noodles you play with in the pool. I felt very special dressed up in that lot in a spa hotel but you can float very well in it. I was also the only person there. There was someone in the sauna while I was in the steam room and then she was in the steam room while I was in the pool but then she vanished, so I could swim and paddle and float in my flotation cap all by myself. It was cold, though. The water was ok but the air was freezing so any part out of the water got very cold, including knees when you were floating so after a while, I tried floating in a more vertical way to keep warm.

After the spa, I packed for my evening trip – Warm Bath & Cool Lights. There were three of us and we took the Thingvellir road up to Laugavatn. The other two haven’t yet done the Golden Circle so we went slowly, telling them and showing them almost everything they would see tomorrow. Here is an Icelandic forest, do you know the joke? Here is the rift. This is how it’s moving, this is when it collapsed one and a half metres in two minutes. All about Laki – I scored points by saying “Laki!” gleefully when the guide said there was a catastrophe in 1783 – I know my Icelandic history! It took forever to get to Laugavatn.

I think they’ve expanded it since I was there. There were the three pools and the steam baths and the lake but now there’s a new pool, a long thin one cut out of the lava between the old pools and the lake. It’s black and full of rocks and a glorious temperature. The old pools are a bit chilly – amazingly warm when you run from the changing rooms in the winter (why don’t they either put the door closer to the water or make some kind of swimming exit?) but a bit chilly after a while. The hot tub is take-your-skin-off hot, I can’t stay in there long and anyway, at night the amazing view of lake and mountains is invisible. But the new pool is wonderful. It’s pleasantly hot and slightly creepy because there are no lights in it and full of lava rocks. I stole one but I must have left it in the changing rooms because it’s just occurred to me that I don’t remember packing it. Getting from pool to pool is a bit of a mission. The three old pools are all joined, you just slither from one bit to the next. The swimming pool shaped one I didn’t go in because that’s even colder. The hot tub is raised and you have to climb out and up the stairs – don’t touch the railings, your hands will stick to it. And the new pool is across, which means walking on wet ground which is now frozen and extremely slippery. I only once tried getting from the new pool to the hot tub.

Next there was a Christmas buffet. I managed to avoid that one by making excuses about “I didn’t know food was provided, I’ve already eaten today”. I could have killed for some apple juice but they only had water. There was a very good looking chocolate cake but the slices were so enormous I’d still have been eating it on the plane on the way home on Thursday, so I stayed away from that too.

The third part of the evening was the Northern Lights. We headed towards the mountains, looked north expectantly and saw nothing. We frozen taking long exposure photos of the stars and then just drove around south western Iceland all night. The moon was full and reflecting off the snowy landscape and it wasn’t nearly as dark as you would expect, considering sunset was about 4pm and it was now gone 10pm. We stopped at the farmer’s borehole at Reykholt – a long exposure photo of that looks great. But it was cold, really cold. The car thermometer at one point said -18C, my hair actually froze, my face nearly froze and at last, all I could do was sit in the car and shiver and be glad the Lights hadn’t come out. We stopped to talk to some horses who were curious enough to come and visit but didn’t want to come too close and be stroked much. We stopped to see the church at Skalholt and then came back via Hveragerði. Got home at around 1.30am.

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