Thursday 5 July 2018

Iceland 1 - Another bucket list tick. Yay!

Thank you to Intrepid Travel for the discount on this Iceland Express trip

Long day today! And it could have gone really badly – yet didn’t. Which is always good.

From London to Reykjavik - yes! Iceland! At last! - is a long way, so I got up early. Just as well, because having caught the train from Wandsworth to Victoria via Clapham Junction, all ready to take the Gatwick Express from there to the airport, it turned out the system was experiencing a "massive signal failure", trains including the GEx were being cancelled left, right and centre, and people were apparently even being encouraged to stay home from work. A bunch of us with trolley suitcases and anxious expressions were directed onto another train that took us back through Clapham Junction and eventually to the unexplored wilderness of East Croydon, where we got finally onto a train to Gatwick. I was SO glad I had heaps of time in hand, unlike some other travellers whose stress levels I really didn’t envy.

Now, I know the following is going to discredit me entirely as a travel writer with assumed experience and know-how: when I booked my Icelandair flights online, somehow, and entirely without noticing, my ticket for the flight there was business class. I know! This is me, I’ve never opted for business class in my life, when I’ve been paying (although, in fact it really didn't cost very much: only $345 return, which seemed reasonable even for economy). I couldn’t believe it when the tickets were issued – but, having done it, I thoroughly enjoyed the special security lane where they’re friendly and polite (lots of "my love" and "madam", plus smiles and pleasantries that are a million miles from the authoritarian hostility of LAX), and you’re whisked through in no time. And I also liked having access to the lounge with the food and wifi and the comfy chairs, and then with being called first onto the plane.
Turning left is always good, even on an older plane, and I enjoyed the service though it shouldn’t give Emirates any concerns. At least I got a decent meal with French wine – everyone down the back had to pay or go hungry, except for little kids. I was amused, incidentally, to read in the inflight magazine that "sheep are integral to life in Iceland" and that they take pride in there being a whole two sheep per head of population. Ha! But then, THE DISAPPOINTMENT! I checked out the movie channel, and it didn’t have ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ listed! It’s just so wrong. That movie is the whole reason I was going to Iceland at all.

Anyway. From the air England looked gorgeous, all mown hayfields and woods and hills; and Scotland was empty, with lots of lochs and edged with improbable bays of golden sand; and then Iceland was much flatter than I expected when we arrived just under 3 hours later.

At the airport I followed everyone else and found myself in the duty-free shop, where I was pleased to find a six-pack of promising white ale at what I (correctly) assumed would be the best price in Iceland. Then, naturally, I plumped for the cheaper shuttle into town, and equally naturally that turned out to be a mistake, since they played loud rap music for the whole hour-long drive into the city (“Dear passengers, there is traffic,” explained the driver) and then faffed around inexplicably at the end, driving round in a complete circle for no apparent reason. But eventually I got to my stop, by the unmistakable glacier-shaped church on the hill, and trailed along to the guesthouse chosen by Intrepid.
Yes, regular reader 😄 I am on another Intrepid tour, pretty soon after last year’s one to see the gorillas in Rwanda. This one too is Basix level, but thankfully without the tents – it’s to be shared rooms in guesthouses instead. We met up with our tour guide straight away. Páll is low-key, experienced, 60ish and made us feel probably in good hands – though time, of course, will tell. He gave us the introductory talk and then took us on a walk around Reykjavik's old town, which looked bright and lively on this sunny evening. We heard that the last 60 days have been relentlessly grey and damp, not in the least bit summery, to the locals’ frustration and disappointment, so they were all out making the most of today’s mostly blue skies: walking, sitting, playing, parading through the narrow streets in an unlikely procession of 1950s American cars, eating and drinking inside and outside the many restaurants. We certainly felt happy to have lucked in, weather-wise.

Restaurants and souvenir/art shops seem to dominate Reykjavik, and puffins are very big, if you see what I mean. Tourism is huge here, as I knew already, and the streets were thronging with people from everywhere with cameras and phones in hand. As, of course, were we, as Páll led us downhill along cobbled streets to a restaurant for dinner. The houses were pretty: two-storey, made of wood or corrugated iron or plaster, painted red, green, orange, yellow, blue with contrasting features and corner gables. Very Scandinavian.
After being shown a little caravan with a long queue of people waiting to order "the world's best hotdogs" (previous customers include Bill Clinton), we ate pizzas at an Italian restaurant, which seemed inappropriate, but acceptable to everyone: we’re a group of 12, all Australians apart from me, and another woman my age who’s from the US. Most of the others are in their 20s, just out of university, and busy travelling. Four of us are solos.

After dinner, which was cheerful and friendly, we scattered to do our own exploring, and I ended up down by the glossy harbour admiring the colourful boats, the large and modern glass convention centre, and wondering about the whaling tours (given that whales are hunted here). Everything looked bright and pretty in the golden light, the ambiance was cheerful and safe, there looked to be lots to enjoy, and it seemed a real shame to be, eventually, heading off to bed when the sun was still so high. But it had, truly, been a very long day.

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