Guest blogged by Anne
Dave and I had a few days to kill in Europe between Christmas and the start of our ski trip in early January so we decided to head off for some Northern Lights hunting in Iceland. Winter is a bit of a challenging time of year to travel around the country because of the weather and lack of daylight so we stuck pretty close to the capital, Reykjavik.
Iceland is an island perched on top of the mid Atlantic ridge which marks the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As a result, it is one of the most volcanically active places in the world, with volcanoes and hot springs everywhere. There are only about 300 000 inhabitants (most of whom live in the Reykjavik) so there is plenty of geothermal energy to go round. The whole country is heated by water piped in from the hot springs, sometimes over many kilometers in highly insulated pipes in a pretty impressive feat of engineering. This natural hot water is also used for showers, swimming pools and the ubiquitous hot tubs; although it does mean that the whole country smells vaguely of sulphur.
We started off with a day tour around the very touristy “Golden Circle,” including the famous scuba diving and snorkeling site at Silfra. The dive involves swimming for around about half an hour along a fissure which feeds a fresh water lake. These fissures were formed because of the two tectonic plates pulling apart so in a sense you are swimming a gap between continents. The water filters for about 50km through the volcanic rock and comes out crystal clear (and freezing cold) so you get visibility of 80-100m. The current is pretty strong which seems strange because the water comes straight out an apparently solid rock wall. Although there is fish life in the lake, you don’t typically see any on the dive, it’s more about the scenery. With water at 1-2 degrees centigrade all year round, dry suits are essential (although we did see one tour company who had their guests in 6mm wetsuits – the guides were in drysuits of course!). A drysuit is similar to a wetsuit, except that it seals completely (in theory) around your wrists and neck so that you stay dry inside. Having a layer of air between your skin and the suit makes a big difference for insulation and there is the added advantage of being able to wear proper thermal undergarments. We were also provided with really thick neoprene hoods and mittens. Although not strictly speaking necessary, we had done a drysuit course in Cape Town in November where we had learnt some of the specifics about using them, and found out just how unpleasant a leaky drysuit can be! We were very relieved about the excellent quality of the suits in Silfra and impressed all round with the dive operation (https://www.dive.is). Surprisingly, the coldest part of the dive was getting ready – the wind was howling and it takes quite a while to get everyone dressed in multiple layers of unfamiliar, bulky gear. The water was a shock at first, but pretty soon my face was totally numb and the cold was tolerable. We didn’t have a camera but you can see some pics on the dive operation site here https://www.dive.is/dive-sites/silfra/
In December, the sun only rises at 11 and it sets at 3:30 so there wasn’t much time for the rest of the tour. It was freezing out, so we didn’t spend a huge amount of time at the Gulfoss waterfall or at Geysir which erupts every 8-10 minutes and is the original geyser from which the English name originates. The landscape is spectacular, but the weather is unbelievably changeable – gail force winds to rain to snow to sleet in a matter of minutes with huge temperature swings. We did manage to enjoy the most expensive beer we have ever bought on the drive back – 1700 krone which translates to about ZAR200 for a 330ml bottle. Everything in Iceland is expensive, especially alcohol.
On of the problems with seeing the Northern Lights is light pollution, so we rented a car and headed out to the country for a few days to improve our chances. We hired a cabin on a farm near Borgagnes for two nights, about 100km outside of Reykjavik (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2128114?s=FuqFQUU3). The cabin was quite simple, but really comfortable and in a beautiful setting. And of course there was a hot tub, no one loves a hot tub more than someone from Iceland. On our first night Storm Frank handed us a massive dump of snow, and we woke up to an actual sunrise (the only time we really saw any evidence of the sun) so rather than braving the snow covered roads, we chilled out in the hot tub for the day. We were pretty unlucky with the weather, and didn’t manage to get clear enough skies for the lights at night, but had a good couple of days anyway.
Back in Reykjavik, we treated ourselves to a fantastic Icelandic meal at a seafood restaurant called the Fish Company (http://www.fiskfelagid.is/en/). We had a four course menu with deliciously fresh cod, gravalax, lamb and a licorice based dessert (licorice is very typical in Icelandic cuisine). We were then off on a late night Northern Lights bus tour. These are massive affairs, hundreds of people get bused out to somewhere a bit out of town, where the forecast is for clear skies so there is some chance of seeing the lights. After a lot of cold waiting around, we saw a bit of a green glow. A bit underwhelming, so I am not going to be ticking this one off my bucket list just yet.
Reykjavik is a picturesque city, with interesting shops, good food and plenty of coffee shops and bars. We spend New Years Eve wandering around, visiting some of the main tourist attractions and trying out the national dish – hot dog with everything (everything being raw and crispy fried onion, tomato sauce, mustard and remoulade). Dave was in heaven. Traditionally, New Years in Iceland is a family affair, with dinner at home and watching a special year-in-review comedy show on TV. Then from 11:30, the city lights up with a kaleidoscope of fireworks. Unlike places like Sydney or London, nothing is organized, it’s just individual families shooting off rockets all over the city for an hour. The effect is fantastic and we enjoyed the show from the bar balcony at the local backpackers before heading home for our 4:30am airport bus.
Next stop was the slopes of the Three Valleys in France. A ski trip is not the most exciting topic for a blog, so I’m just including a summary, a few pics and some links for anyone who might be in the area.
The Three Valleys is one of the biggest ski areas in the world (http://www.les3vallees.com). It is a really good option for a group of mixed abilities because there is a wide variety of slopes and off piste options. It is also excellent if you have weather issues – excellent snow making, plenty of really high slopes in case of warm weather (especially in Val Thorens) and lots of tree lined options for bad visibility days. We prefer skiing in the Val Thorens and Courchevel valleys (especially Courchevel 1650) over Meribel. For this trip, we stayed in La Tania, which is a tiny (mostly) chalet-only village between Meribel and Courchevel, reasonably priced and well connected. We can highly recommend the chalet company (http://www.ski-dazzle.com) the ski school we used (the best private lesson I have ever had with Scott from Momentum Snowsports http://www.momentumsnowsports.co.uk) and the resort itself and I have included links to these below. Our chalet (Jamais Bleu) was really comfortable, with spectacular food, run by a fantastic team, proper ski in ski out with a hot tub. All in all, an excellent week with a fantastic bunch of old and new friends.
Diving tours in Iceland
Cabin in the Icelandic countryside
Seafood in Reykjavik
Chalets in La Tania
Brilliant ski lessons in La Tania and Courchevel