I had the pleasure of the company of staff and students from Northampton School for Boys, and throughout our week we were blessed with really pleasant autumn weather, as well as some great views of the Northern Lights.
The week’s programme covered some of the standard locations for a school trip in the south west, including: the Reykjanes peninsula; the south coast bonanza mix of waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers and coastal scenery; the ‘Golden Circle’ of Geysir, Gulfoss, Thingvellir and Kerio; and a visit to Reykjavik. In addition, one day was organised around a theme of renewable energy, and included visits to Hellisheidi geothermal power station, Hveragerdi town, and Ljojafoss HEP station.
I have visited Iceland on behalf of Rayburn Tours a number of times now, but each trip often manages to include something new for me. On this trip, I enjoyed my first view of a ‘new’ waterfall – Gluggafoss, or ‘Windows Falls’.
Gluggafoss (also called Merkjarfoss) is located around 10 miles past Hvollsvollur, on the way to Stora Dimon. It consists of 2 tiers, forming a total drop of 53 metres. Three natural arches (the ‘windows’) span the face of the waterfall, and up until 1947 the only part of the falls that was visible was between these arches. Following the Hekla eruption of 1947, over 20 cm of ash was deposited into the Merkja river above the falls, and as it washed down river it clogged up the tunnel where the waterfall was once hidden, forcing the water to by-pass the arches. It took the river around 50 years to erode this volcanic debris and return it to its present formation.
Another ‘first’ for me was a visit to the recently opened Stone Museum in Hveragerdi. Sited in an extension to the petrol station, this family-run venture proved a real hit with the students. It includes a really interesting and well-presented collection of Icelandic rock samples, and the young owner gives a really engaging 45 minute talk about the collection. A huge chunk of petrified tree trunk attracted a great deal of interest – and proved how Iceland was once upon a time densely forested.
On the last day of the trip, I had an opportunity to take a look at another new attraction – the ‘Tales From Iceland’ exhibition that opened in Reykjavik a couple of months ago. This is a walk-through video presentation next to the new Hlemmur Food Market, and only 5 minutes away from Hallgrimskirkja.
It consists of 14 high quality large video screens playing short, punchy films about many different aspects of Iceland. I was impressed with the content and quality of the films, and feel it could be a useful part of an itinerary for groups staying in or visiting the city. It would be particularly appropriate at the beginning of a trip (or possibly at the end).
Any views of the Northern Lights provide special moments on a trip, but the two nights of excellent displays we enjoyed proved to be a real highlight of the week. Our first experience provided us with over an hour of dancing and rolling green light displays viewed in the dark sky on the edge of Selfoss town. On the next night, we only had to open the front door of our hostel to see the show repeated.
One striking feature of this trip was the many tourist-related developments that had taken place since my last visit back in June. Back in July, I wrote a lengthy blog about the growth of tourism in Iceland, and suggested that the country was approaching an important potential tipping point.
One of the main problems Iceland has had to face is providing sufficient infrastructure to keep pace with the growing number of visitors, and in the space of only four months or so since my last visit, Iceland seems to have responded rapidly to the recent tourism boom
At Seljalandfoss – a massively popular and easily accessible waterfall on the south coast route has now installed parking charges for the first time. Each coach arriving full of school parties or organised trip visitors is now handed a 3000 Krona ticket – the equivalent of around £20. Parking wardens were patrolling the area, and large new parking areas had been constructed to cope with the increased demand for parking spaces.
There were numerous changes to spot on the Golden Circle route. At Thingvellir, construction of the new visitor centre was well under way, while the new hotel at Geysir approaches completion. Large display boards at the entrance to the hot springs area advertise the future development plans for one of the country’s leading natural attractions.
At Gulfoss, the new steps connecting the upper and lower viewing platforms are now in use, and a large extension to the visitor centre has started to emerge from the basalt lava field. At Kerio, wooden walkways now pretty well surround the entire crater rim, while a new access path has appeared around the crater lake.
Further along the south coast at the tiny service centre village of Vik, the settlement seems to have doubled in size with new holiday homes and hotels under construction in every available space. A massive new Café and outdoor clothing store has also come into being right next to the existing factory shop.
Reykjavik is offering a range of new features and attractions like the new food market at Hlemmur Square and the ‘Tales From Iceland’ exhibition mentioned earlier. The new luxury apartment development overlooking the old harbour is in full swing, while the new hotel next to the Harpa grows a little each time I visit.
I have noticed so many changes since June, I can’t really comprehend what I might find when I return to Iceland for my next trip. I have read recently of possible plans for a train link from the ever-expanding airport at Keflavik to the capital, as well as a proposal for a brand new airport in south Iceland.
Iceland is certainly moving quickly to add to its tourist infrastructure, but it is interesting to note that since I wrote the ‘tipping point’ article back in July, it has become apparent that the rate of tourism growth has begun to decline. Following a number of years that have seen growth rates of between 20 and 40%, it seems likely that in 2018 the rate of growth will drop to a much more manageable 8%, and in the future fall further to even below the historic average of around 5% growth. Pressures from visitor numbers seem likely to continue to be an issue in the south west of the country – where most of the people live, and where most of the tourists still visit – but as growth in the total number of visitors begins to even out and with more of the country opening up to tourism to ‘spread the load’, perhaps Iceland has a better chance of coping with the demands of improved services and infrastructure. However, as the landscape begins to change in response to the continual demands of tourism, will Iceland be able to preserve the wilderness and natural beauty that still makes this magical island such a special place?