I knew things were going to be different this time in Iceland, as I was greeted by a heavy snow shower when I arrived at Keflavik airport. I was flying ahead of my group (Sir John Deane’s College from Cheshire) for a trip organised by Rayburn Travel – and by the time they arrived, a decent covering of fresh snow had settled over the south part of the island.
As we travelled across the young lava field of the Reykjanes Peninsula, the uniform black of the basalt rock had been replaced by a blanket of white. At the Bridge Between the Continents, instead of drawing my explanation diagrams in black basalt sand, I drew them in relief using the fresh snow.
I have never been able to decide which is the best time of the year to visit Iceland. Summer months provide longer days and easier access to parts of the island, but lose out on the chance to see the Northern Lights. But in winter, although it can become difficult to visit some locations, the seasonal sprinkling of snow certainly adds a different atmosphere to the place.
On this visit, the main attractions of the Golden Circle all looked rather different under a cloak of snow and ice. At Thngvellir, Thingvalavatn lake was frozen over, while at Geysir, the white steam spouting from Strokur was beautifully framed by a clear blue sky. The majestic waterfall at Gulfoss seemed to have shrunk in size, with giant sections of the water mass now frozen solid. We were unable to visit Kerid (a small explosion cone) as the paths around the crater rim were too slippery to navigate – this was the only item on our itinerary we failed to complete.
The time we had gained by missing Kerid was put to good use though, and we added an excursion to Sjelandfoss as a replacement. We had to make do with a view of the waterfall from a distance of a few metres, as winter ice had blocked up the path that allows access behind the cascading water.
It is always nice to enjoy some new experiences on a trip, and this was the first time I had been able to stay at the hostel at Skalinn. The facilities here have been recently refurbished, and the food was homely. However, the main advantage of Skalinn is its location. To get up in the morning and watch the sun rise over nearby Eyjafyallajokull was a real privilege, and the absence of any surrounding light pollution meant that the Northern Lights were particularly clear and vivid. Not only did we get a show late at night, but as we left at the unearthly hour of 2.30 am on our final day, we were sent on our way with a very special encore.
Early on in the trip we made a call to the Secret Lagoon at Hveraholmi, near Fluoir. I wasn’t sure what to expect here, and wondered beforehand if this would prove to be a disappointment for the students with the Blue Lagoon figuring on the programme at the end of the trip. As it turned out, the more authentic and intimate surroundings of the Secret Lagoon proved to be an all-round success and the experience was thoroughly enjoyed by all. Even after a session in the Blue Lagoon, it was still a preferred choice of many. The Blue Lagoon has been slowly shifting upmarket in recent years, and its popularity can sometimes lead to a degree of overcrowding which is not the case in some of the many smaller thermal bathing areas in the country.
At Hveragerdi – my favourite town – we paid a visit to the geothermal park. I had been here before, and wondered if it would have anything to offer our students with all of the mud pools and steam vents being covered by a thickness of snow. By booking ahead we had the chance to boil some eggs in the hot springs, and after a quick tour of the park, this was a bit of fun enjoyed by all. I am not a great lover of cooked eggs, but I have to say that here I tucked in for second-helpings. Next time, I hope to add rye bread cooked in a geothermal oven to the menu.
This was only a short trip, and after the obligatory trip to the Blue Lagoon to round things off, it was back to the rain and the wind of the UK.