Day 3 – Reykjavik – The Golden Circle

Bad Light Stopped Play

Today I woke up with a major hangover but at least I’d managed some sleep. The Thursday before easter is a public holiday in Iceland so many people were out drinking last night. Me and Dad decided to join them and somehow ended up at some minimal house house party. That’s not a typo. This place was apparently a cafe during the day but at night they strip out the furniture and turn it into a large house which plays minimal house music. Not sure it was Dad’s scene but I had a fairly good time!

We had a chilled out breakfast and eventually set off for Iceland’s famous Golden Circle. This drive takes around five hours and takes you through some of the best scenery Iceland has to offer. The only problem was that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Visibility meant we could see only one or two cars in front; the distant mountains remained hidden behind the low cloud and heavy snowfall. Not to be dissuaded, we ploughed on…literally. The first stop was Geysir, a hotspot for volcanic activity and birthplace of the word we use for this spectacular sight:

Bearing the stink of sulfur we had a brief walk around the other geysers that weren’t quite so explosive and then set off for our next stop: Gulfoss. I’d heard this was the crown jewel of the Golden Circle and when we arrived I was not disappointed.

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It really was an incredible spot for photos. Considering the lack of visibility around the national park, the waterfall was well protected from the elements and we spent quite a long time trying to get some good pictures. There was a chain blocking the path to the rocks that sit just off the waterfall where you can feel the spray, but someone had obviously ignored them and the rest of the crowd, as well as ourselves, followed suit. It’s quite an incredible noise and its easy just to sit there and watch, completely mesmerised. I hadn’t planned on going to Niagra Falls but Gulfoss has planted the seed of inspiration.

We headed back to Reykjavik, taking a detour to the other side of the lake with the hope of catching some views, an optimistic but fruitless endeavour. In fact the snow had picked up dramatically and all the snow ploughs were on the other side of the road. Dad was struggling to keep our crappy American 4X4 on the road for the majority of the way back. Luckily we made it back in one piece and had decided to warm up in the sauna, slightly depressed by a combination of hangover and the lack of visibility over the course of the day.

It was our last night in Reykjavic and I had heard so many rumours about puffin tapas. For some reason Dad is rather fond of these glorified seagulls but I was keen so we headed off to the local tapas bar. We got the Icelandic Set Menu which included Puffin, Mink Whale, Lobster and some of my new favourite fish, Blue Ling. The food was excellent once again and it just added to how impressed I’ve been with the quality of Icelandic cuisine. Even the burgers in your average bar are cooked medium rare as opposed to the lava rock equivalent you find in most weatherspoons back home.

After a couple of beers we headed home, needing some rest from the previous night’s activities and the eye straining we’d been doing all day. I got up early the next morning to take some photos of Reykjavik from the top of the church and I got lucky with the weather. What better way is there to end this section of the blog with my version of the standard postcard picture of Reykjavik.

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See you in New York!

Day 2 (Part 2) – Reykjavik – The Grill Market

WarningThis post contains images that may cause drooling.

On my recent trip to Silfa Dive Centre I asked the instructor which of the restaurants in Reykjavic is his favourite. He instantly said that the Grill Market was excellent and a favourite spot for the majority of the locals as a place to treat themselves. Acknowledging that this may well be a place to spend a months salary on, we set off for the restaurant strictly to see if the place was truly exceptional. Having taken an age to search Reykjavik’s back roads we eventually found the elusive venue, but Dad was desperate for the loo and so we entered without looking at the menu. So much for forward thinking!

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(Photos above are borrowed from the restaurant website which is cited at the end)

The building was immense. It had originally been a theatre which was unfortunately destroyed in a fire. When it was rebuilt it was decided that the exterior should be made to the same specifications as the original. However, the layout inside was designed completely from scratch. The result is an amazing stone building with a beautifully finished modern interior. I’ve honestly never seen a building like it and the way it symbolises Iceland is perfect. Dad was similarly pleased and decided that it was only fitting that we enjoy the find with a bit of extravagance. And so begins the story of our tasting menu at the Grill Market, Reykjavik.

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Dried Cod deep fried in Spinach Batter & Squid Tempura with Tartar Sauce

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Duck Salad with Mozzarella, Spinach Leaves, Grapefruit, Mandarins and Pomegranate Seeds

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Beef Carpacciio with Chilli, Pesto and Pine Nuts

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Spare Ribs with Grill Market Dressing and Barbecue Sauce

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Blue Ling with Cottage Cheese, Parsnip Chips, Soya Sesame Dressing and Rocket Salad

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Prime of Lamb with Sweetened Yellow Beet Paste, Pickled Yellow Beet and Spring Onion

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Beef Rib Eye with Mushroom Glaze and Roasted Vegetables

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Dessert Platter – Creme Brulee, Lemon and Blueberry Sorbet, Apple Tart, Mascarpone & Coffee Ice Cream topped with a Chocolate Lid & Hot Toffee Sauce

The Blue Ling was my personal favourite although the whole menu was excellent. Combined with the sharp service from a team of well-trained staff made for an excellent night of dining. Being seated with a view to the kitchen was a nice touch. I would highly recommend the Grill Market as would many others, it holds 2nd place in the TripAdvisor restaurant rankings for Reykjavik at the time of writing.

Where’s your favourite spot to eat in Reykjavic? Think there are any other great spots to eat I should check out on my route? Let me know in the comments!

Tomorrow is the Golden Circle

Day 2 (Part 1) – Reykjavik – Silfra Diving & Þingvellir National Park

Cold Will Never Be The Same Again – Dry Suit Experience Required

Once again I had barely slept. I had had a fever during the night and this compounded with the Snoratron 3000 in the bunk below was not a good mix for resting. However I had to be up early as today I was getting picked up to go Scuba Diving. Now this may sound a little crazy and looking back on the experience, you do have to be a little mental to want to go diving in water that’s 1-3 degrees centigrade. The decision isn’t made any easier when there are so many other things that you can only do in Iceland whereas you can dive almost anywhere. However, as soon as I saw this dive opportunity I was completely set on the idea. I’ll explain why later…

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The weather had finally decided to make up its mind what to do over the course of the night and as a result the landscape as we drove out of Reykjavik had changed completely. Where there had been endless fields of grey rock there now was a never ending blanket of snow. Iceland obviously still had a few tricks in store for me! As we went further out the horizon became less and less flat and soon mountains where looming on all sides. Our instructor informed us that we had just entered the Þingvellir National Park.

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This incredible place is where the European and North American tectonic plates are slowly moving away from each other, at a rate of approximately 2cm per year. The result is an incredible fissure in the earth which is what I would be diving into. Now there is almost no wildlife, only one type of fish which is the size of your little finger and the same colour as the rocks it feeds on, hardly a wonder of the world. So you might ask why I would spend so much money and so much of my short time in Iceland to make this trip. Let’s try and sum it up with a photo:

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This is Silfra, the only place that provides the opportunity to touch two separate parts of the earth’s crust at the same time. Unfortunately, to do it you have to go through a rather brutal acclimatisation to water that’s barely still liquid. We were strapped up in dry suits which would keep the major parts of the body warm. This meant our heads and hands were left bare so we put on thick neoprene gloves and a hood. At this point I was feeling pretty confident as I waited from my whole face mask to cover the remaining exposed skin from my forehead to my chin. Unfortunately these don’t exist, and only a regular mask is provided. This means that from under your nose to the bottom of your chin is left completely exposed to the water.

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The instructor was absolutely correct in saying that the pain only lasts a couple of minutes before you lose all feeling in your face. However, that hardly felt like a consollation as I gritted my teeth waiting for my lips to turn to ice. I’ve never felt cold like it. And my hands and head weren’t fairing much better. I’m pretty sure wet suit neoprene is designed to work for water that’s at a reasonable temperature. Like the North Sea for example. And so it was that the instructor gave us the signal to follow him below. Thank god the dive doesn’t go too deep as I was using up air at a ridiculous rate just hovering below the surface. However I’m pretty sure if you looked at my breathing record after the dive there would be a massive flat line where I put my head below for the first time.

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It’s a cliché to say it but the scenery literally takes the breath away from you. It may have been partly the cold as well but I’m giving the scenery the majority of the credit. As you drop down into the fissure you get an idea of how good the visibility is. Because there’s no wildlife and the water is so pure, visibility can reach over 120 meters. At this point this means you can see the walls around you as though you’re outside in the fresh air. The colours and shadows are so vivid, the cold is actually necessary to remind you that you’re in the water.

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The dive gets more and more stunning as you progress on, going through sections like the Silfra Cathedral, a giant area where the walls stand almost vertical and the depths reach 22 metres. Another is the lagoon which was my personal favourite, an area which is extremely shallow at just a few metres but is extremely wide meaning you can see a huge amout, especially since this area has the best visibility.

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The dive was magnificent but my only issue is that I had never done any dry suit diving before. It is extremely complex and the dive is already tough as it is considering you’re trying to master the cold, whilst navigating tiny spaces. It got so frustrating that I decided not to do a second dive despite being included in the tour, a decision which I don’t regret because my sinuses through a hissy fit promptly after getting out of the water. For people looking to do the dive I would definitely recommend it if you have dry suit diving experience, and if you don’t, you should do it snorkeling. I would probably advise snorkeling anyway as the dive is so shallow I think the scuba equipment is a waste of time. Then again if I had been able to use it properly maybe I’d feel differently.

Overall it was an excellent trip that was hampered by being ill. When I got back I spent an hour under the shower trying to reheat and eventually gave it up. The only thing that was going to cure this was some good food and a lot of alcohol, a story which deserves it’s own post.

Would you be up for a dive like this? Let me know your thoughts in the comments 🙂

N.B. The guy I dived with is going to send me the underwater photos once they are developed. Unfortunately I have had to borrow some images from Google until then.

Day 1 – Reykjavik – Blue Lagoon & The Lava Fields

Out of the Fridge and into the Freezer

So the big day finally arrived. I woke up this morning with a raw throat, raw sinuses and wet laundry; not exactly the dream start I’d been hoping for. A couple of painkillers and some overkill pampering from mum, my sister and my girlfriend certainly made things easier. A couple of hours later and I was at Heathrow, ready for the final goodbye. By this point I’ve built up a fairly good system of hiding my emotions to make the whole process easier. Unfortunately the system fails catastrophically when the person I’m saying goodbye to shows the faintest sign of breaking down as I found out when confronted by my teary little sister at one of my many leaving dos. Luckily, my farewell party had strength in numbers and the whole process went rather smoothly. However, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel slightly off having gone through departures and as a result, I wasn’t in the mood to write on the flight.

Having spent the plane journey watching a film and doing some back up reading on Iceland and enjoying their in-flight marketing material,  the time soon came to make our descent I was really looking forward to getting to Reykjavik. Little did I know that my dad awaited me in the arrivals lounge ready to surprise me! It was fantastic to see him and he seemed particularly pleased that he’d managed to keep his visit a secret from me despite telling half of Essex.

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As we set off for the Blue Lagoon to wash the flight off, we pulled over for a moment to take in the scenery. It felt like I was on a different planet. The landscape is absolutely breathtaking! Volcanic rocks as far as the eye can see, and yet this particular part of Iceland is absolutely flat. Having taken a moment to catch my breath and take a few photos, we continued on to the spa.

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Unfortunately the gentleman we asked to take our photo was obviously not born to be the next Ansel Adams, and somehow managed to cut off the Blue Lagoon logo. Still, the sun was shining and we rounded the corner to the entrance.

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I have seen so many photos of the Blue Lagoon but none really do it justice. The colour of the water is so much more vivid in reality and the way it contrasts with the harsh grey of the rest of the landscape is spectacular. However we weren’t there only to enjoy the scenery and quickly made our way inside, changed and headed back out into the pools. This period of transition can only have lasted about 15 minutes so you can understand how surprised I was to walk out the door into a zero visibility blizzard. Apparently this sudden change in weather is absolutely normal in Iceland but as a tourist it’s taking me quite a while to adjust. No harm done though as it works both ways, and the weather soon reverted to its previous state.

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The pool itself is great and I’d highly recommend it. We certainly left feeling refreshed and ready for some dinner. There’s only one place that I’d heard of that was fairly cheap and this was Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (or The Best Hot Dog in Town). I’m not sure how a tiny vendor has become one of the most famous places to eat in Reykjavic but their hot dogs certainly are amazing. Afterwards we happened to see the bar next door was showing Arsenal vs West Ham. It had been a long day and I’d barely slept the night before so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a beer and watch the footy, especially considering I’m an avid arsenal fan and Dad is a West Ham man. It was a good relaxing evening (we won 3-1).

Afterwards I headed back to the hostel for the night. I had to be up early in the morning for an activity you wouldn’t expect to find in Iceland. But more on that in the next post.