Travel review: Reykjavik, Iceland

Gullfoss Waterfall
Gullfoss Waterfall

It was like home from home. We have Ruaridh (8) and Flora (6). Two lively and engaging children who like to have fun all the time!

Iceland and its capital Reykjavik has Blackie and Briskly, twins who are part of the country’s Christmas folklore and when not sleeping, can be found to be causing havoc wherever they go.

Geysir Geothermal area

Geysir Geothermal area

Mix the two together and it was adventure all the way when we visited snowy Iceland in time to enjoy the run up to Christmas. And boy do they do it well. Short daylight means all the homes and shops are lit up beautifully with festive fun and there are magical creatures all over the place.

Tradition dictates that every year in Iceland, 13 days before Christmas, the curious looking Yule Lads come down from the mountains to cause all sorts of havoc in the name of Advent.

From Window Peeper who is always getting into trouble as he takes an uninvited look through people’s windows to Flora’s favourite, Sausage Swiper, said to have the healthiest appetite in Iceland and Ruaridh’s number one, Door Slammer, who always lives up to his name when insulted, The Yule Lads are hilarious.

And in December, Reykjavik shows what a great city it is, by having lots of fun and games planned and if you look carefully, The Yule Lads are projected on buildings across the city. The National Museum plays host to a lad every day and when they hit town, children place their Christmas wish list under their shoes which are then put in the window sills of their homes for The Yule Lads to see. If the children are good, they will get a present, if not a rotten potato!

The Christmas tradition is just part of what makes this country so special. The people are great fun, the landscape magnificient and there is plenty to see and do. And all that eases the pain of the expense of Iceland, which can be eye-watering!

To get us into the Christmas spirit, the kind folk of Iceland Air had cartoon Yule Lads dotted around the aeroplane to keep us occupied on the short flight. We enjoyed a traditional drink of malt and orange juice and Ruaridh and Flora were spoiled with bags of sweets.

Once in Iceland, it’s a 50 minute ride aboard the well-organised Reykjavik Excursions bus to the heart of the city. When we had Storm Desmond, Iceland had the worse snow its had since the 1970s and there was plenty left for us to enjoy. This efficient country has the weather under control, with huge piles of snow moved away from pavements and roads, to ensure daily life continues with ease.

And with a nice dry cold and probably the best tap water in the world, it means moving around it easy. We stayed in Island Apartments, which opened in March and has six well designed apartments to stay in. Ours was calledVatnajökull and had a glacier theme to represent the importance of the natural wonders in Iceland.

The apartment was neat and with all the mod cons you needed for a short stay, with free Wi-Fi and satellite television to keep the children happy too. Just off the main shopping street, it was handy for exploring and an ideal base.

To cut down on cost and allow you to explore with ease, The Reykjavik City Pass is a must. You can buy it for 24, 48 or 72 hours and it gives you free access to the main attractions and transport on the buses and local ferry.

First stop for us was the Reykjavik Art Museum. Divided into three sections at different spots around the city, we chose the downtown modern museum which shows off the city’s love for quirky art. Housed in a well restored warehouse, the art was strange, but fascinating.

And from there it was to The National Museum which is a must as it takes you through the ages of the city from the early settlers up to modern day life. Its great for children too, with plenty of hands on experiences.

To get a real feel for the city, its fun to walk around and admire the beautiful buildings and homes and the picturesque lake, which was frozen enough for people to walk across. The old harbour has the Vikin Maritime Museum and there are displays on whales and of course The Northern Lights, which both play a big part of life in Iceland. And there is the new concert hall, which looks like a huge computer screen when it lights up at night.

The old part of the city is truly lovely, especially at this time of the year and there is the strange looking Hallgrimskirkja, an immense white concrete church, which can be seen 20km away. Its plain looking from the outside, but the vast 5275 pipe organ inside blows you away. Pottering around the city at Christmas also means joining in all the fun of the free ice skating rink and for the more adventurous you can head off ski-ing.

Grayline Iceland is one of the best companies to take you away from the city for a peek what’s outside. For people short of time, The Golden Circle Tour is the best. A six to eight hour tour takes you to three important sites. First up is the Pingvellir National Park, Iceland’s most important historical site and a real stunner. The Vikings set up the first democratic parliament here in AD930 and the meetings were held outside. The site has a superb natural setting in a huge fissured rift valley, which was caused by the meeting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and it is now a recognised Unesco World Heritage Site.

From there, it is a short ride to Gullfoss, a spectacular double cascade waterfall which drops 32m and kicks up a mean spray! It has been visited since 1875 and in the 1920s a team of foreign investors wanted to dam it for a hydro electric project, but the landowner Tomas Tomasson refused to sell it. However, the investors went behind his back and sought Government permission, but were thwarted by Tomasson’s daughter Sigriour, who walked barefoot to Reykjavik to protest and even threatened to jump into the waterfall. Thankfully the lease was never paid for and the waterfalls are now a natural treasure as is the nearby Geysir site. This was our favourite. Its an original hot water spout and entirely natural and was discovered in the Haukadalur geothermal region. Active for 800 years, the geysirs are a great sight, but not always predictable!

The most reliable is Strokkur, which usually erupts every 10 minutes. Unfortunatley for Strokkur, Ruaridh and Flora are not as patient as most and they huffed and puffed as they waited for it to explode. But just as Ruaridh gave a “just erupt will you’’ sigh, Strokkur obliged and prompty soaked the duo with its 30ft spout up into the air!

Iceland is of course famed for its natural wonders and the best known is probably The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal pool. Swimming and relaxing outside is a favourite pastime for locals and there are many pools in Reykavik which can be accessed via the city pass.

But the Blue Lagoon is something special. Its handy to if you are heading for the airport too, as you can jump off the Reykavik Excursions bus and have fun, before heading home.

The lagoon is a magnificent black lava field and the milky teal spa which you bathe in, is fed water from the futuristic Svartsengi geothermal plant. There are lots of packages for visitors to take, from luxury massages and a VIP lounge, to fancy robes and slippers to wear , before heading for the outdoor pool. But your adrenaline should keep the cold at bay as you prepare to head into the warm water.

Once in, its hard to get out and before we knew it, Ruaridh and Flora had covered their faces in white silica mud and were enjoying the a smoothie from the water bar, as they let the 70 per cent sea water, 30 per cent fresh water lagoon work its magic. Rich in blue-green algae, mineral salts and silica mud, it’s a perfect way to exfoliate the skin.

And before we knew it, Ruaridh and Flora looked like two new born babies, with pink soft faces and an innocent glow – but then they remembered their alter egos – Blackie and Briskly and the fun and havoc returned, with avengeance!

Factfile:

Accommodation: Island Apartments are slap bang in the heart of the city and only a few minutes walk from the main shopping street in Hverfisgata. Opened in March this year, there are six apartments to choose from, each inspired and named after part of Icelandic nature. All have cooking facilities, a private shower room, a lounge with Wi-Fi and satellite television as well as nice comfy beds! For more information and special offers, log onto: www.islandapartments.is
Activities: The Golden Circle tour is an ideal way to explore the beautiful area outside Reykjavik. The tour takes in Pingvellir, the site of the original outdoor parliament, Gulifoss waterfall and the Geysir site, which is something to be seen, its great fun! Check out www.grayline.is
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most famous attractions and it’s a great place to relax, especially on a cold day. This geothermal pool will have you feeling fit and fabulous after your dip. Log onto www.bluelagoon.com
Transport: Reykjavik Excursions provide transport to and from the city to the airport as well as The Blue Lagoon and also offer a huge number of daily tours from whale watching to seeing The Northern Lights. Check out: www.re.is
Tourist Information: Its worth investing in the Reykjavik City Card as it allows free entrance to museums, swimming pools and other cultural attractions as well as discounts for shops and restaurants and it also takes care of your transport too. There are lots of tourist offices dotted around the city, the main one being downtown. For a virtual tour, log onto: www.visitreykjavik.is