A lot of things were different about my most recent trip to Iceland as a Field Studies Tutor for Rayburn Travel. First of all, this was a different time of year for me to be visiting the country. Most of my trips for Rayburn have taken place in the autumn or spring, with snow still covering the lowlands – so I was able this time to see Iceland in a completely different colour, dominated by the lavender blues of the wild lupins that had taken over the roadsides. It was also strange to experience the extended daylight hours, being so close to the summer solstice.
Secondly, there was a completely different group dynamic to this trip. I was working with an unusually small group made up of young students, teachers and parents from an American school near Boston. This made for a really relaxed and friendly family atmosphere which really added to the enjoyment of the trip. Thirdly, this was a longer trip than I had been used to. Most trips I had been involved with in the past have lasted only four or five days – but this was a full ten days, which provided the opportunity for the group to see a huge amount of the island. It also meant that I had the chance to visit some new locations, and broaden my own knowledge of Iceland.
I flew out the night before the group arrived, so that I could be at Keflavik to meet them on their arrival. Then it was off to the Blue Lagoon for our first experience together, followed by a pizza blow-out meal at Grindavik before heading east to our hostel at Husio.
When we awoke for the next morning, a beautifully clear day afforded excellent views of the famous Eyjafyallajokull volcano, which loomed over the hostel from only a few kilometres away. The theme for the day was geothermal energy, and the morning was spent hiking to the Reykjadalur hot river to bathe in the thermal springs.
After a visit to the geothermal park at Hveragerdi, where we boiled eggs in the hot stream, we called in to try the earthquake simulator in the local shopping centre that represented the Richter 6.3 earthquake that shook this town in 2008.
We then moved on to visit a tomato greenhouse operation at Frioheimar, near Reykholt. This family business had been built up over 20 years from a virtually derelict farm, producing on average a ton of tomatoes each day throughout the year. Not a bad effort for a farm close to the Arctic Circle and hampered by long, dark winters! The tomatoes thrived in a computer-controlled environment where cheap geothermal power provides both heat and light.
I was particularly interested in the boxes of bees (needed for pollination) dotted around the greenhouses, imported every six weeks from Holland.
The packaged tomatoes are sent to supermarkets all over Iceland, and carry a photograph of the farmer and his family, making a great point about the local provenance of this product.
Apart from fruit production, the farm has added a shop (with a surprisingly wide range of tomato-based products, including tomato jams, salsas and various drinks), a very popular restaurant (with – surprise, surprise – excellent tomato soup), and also a large stable offering riding lessons and Icelandic horse demonstrations. During our visit we took the opportunity to learn about the unique extra ‘tolt’ gait of Icelandic horses, that provides a fast, smooth ride over long distances. It is said that a rider should be able to hold a glass of wine in one hand and the reigns in the other – while not spilling a drop of the treasured liquid! After receiving 900 visitors during the first year of trading, this thriving business has proved such a success that last year no fewer than 100,000 people came to the farm.
We finished off the day with a visit to the Hellisheidi power station, to see how geothermal energy is converted into electricity and home heating for Reykjavik.
The theme for day three was tourism, and we called at the three classic sites of the ‘Golden Circle’ route – Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss. All three sites were as busy as I have ever seen them, and this made it easy to focus on pressures exerted at tourist honey pots, and the management solutions that can be employed to alleviate them. Visitor numbers have recently gone through the roof in Iceland, and the country is currently struggling to keep pace in terms of the infrastructure needed to meet the needs of the growing number of tourists. A recent report has revealed that in the first half of 2016, Iceland received 66% more tourists than for the same period last year, and more than the total for all of year 2012.
We finished the day by winding down at the Secret Lagoon in Fluour, the less commercial alternative to the famous Blue Lagoon near the airport.