Whales, Waterproofs and Hot Pools
During the summer James, one of our long haul tour specialists, accompanied a group of students from Cwmcarn High School on their geography tour to Iceland. Read all about their experiences in James' tour diary.
I met up with the group at Gatwick airport on a warm, sunny July day. After their early morning start the group were excited and looking forward to their long weekend in Iceland. The purpose of my joining the group was to learn a little from them as to what our groups expect from a trip to Iceland, to meet with the operators in Iceland and also to experience a little more of this amazing country in the process. From a professional perspective organising tours and from a personal geographic background I had been looking forward to the trip for weeks.
We flew with WOW Air, a relatively new airline just celebrating its’ first anniversary, operating out of Iceland with regular flights to London with many more routes in Europe opening up all the time. This was my first experience of the airline and I have to admit the overall experience was good, check in was efficient, the group were checked in quite quickly and after the security procedures we boarded the flight for the 3 hour trip to Keflavik.
Upon arrival the weather in Iceland was cold and damp, a complete contrast to the wonderful sun we had left behind in the UK. Once through customs and immigration we collected the luggage and headed off, albeit in different directions. The group to the Blue Lagoon to enjoy a relaxing bathe in the thermal waters of one of Iceland’s most well known attractions, whilst I had a meeting with Iceland Travel to discuss the upcoming arrangements for future groups travelling.
On the drive into the city I was pleased to see that many more construction projects including improvements to roads and other infrastructure were in progress compared to my last visit just over a year ago; a sure sign that at long last the economy is picking up after the banking crisis of a few years ago. Tourism, and in particular the groups market, is a very big revenue earner for Iceland and we are very keen to keep promoting the country and the opportunities it affords for students of all disciplines.
Following my meeting with Laufey and Sigga I went round to the Hotel Cabin to check on some future bookings and to look at the dining areas. This is our most popular hotel and I was keen to meet with the reservations manager and thank her for the excellent service provided to all our groups.
After a short chat I left to check in at the Arctic Comfort hotel where I was to spend the next three nights with the group. Again everything was perfectly organised with the rooms allocated and key cards waiting. I had arrived earlier than the group who were dining at the Blue Lagoon; an option we are finding increasingly popular with groups arriving mid to late afternoon as it then allows a little more free time in the evening to explore the local area and not have to worry about dining late.
As the group had dinner booked at the Blue Lagoon I decided to venture out and visit one of the other restaurants we use regularly, Askur, a 10 minute walk from the hotel. Although the group menus are set I decided that food from the regular menu would give me a good idea of what the groups would experience. The service was efficient and despite the restaurant being busy the food arrived quickly and was of very good quality. Suffice to say I enjoyed the meal and know that our groups will be well catered for when they visit.
I met up with the group back at the hotel after their swim and evening meal. The feedback on the meal was positive and they had really enjoyed the swim in the Blue Lagoon, a really good way to start their trip. Despite their early start that day they were still keen to explore the area and were already congregating in the lobby bar area to go for an early evening walk around the local area and find a supermarket to stock up with provisions for the following day. Wanting to catch up on my notes I didn’t join them as I would be doing a fairly extensive walk around the area a couple of days later.
Breakfast at the hotel, served from 0700 in summer consists of self service options of cereals, toast and various cold meats and cheese as well as fresh fruit and salad, so is enough to start the long day ahead. We boarded the coach at 0900 for our Golden Circle tour.
We set off over Hellisheiði plateau to Hveragerði, known as the greenhouse village where the thermal power is harnessed to provide heating and lighting for the huge greenhouses growing crops year round, one of the major benefits to the country is that fresh produce is available year round without relying on too many imports.
Our first brief stop is to view Faxe Waterfall, a small feature on one of the many rivers flowing from the mountain areas named for its shape and simple flow, the name relates to the mane of a horse.
From here we continue to Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall, one of the most impressive waterfalls in Europe. A short walk is needed to get to the Falls from the coach park along a well laid pathway and there are several optional routes to view the Falls from different angles. We chose the lower route as the weather was still miserable. Here thousands of tons of icy water thunder majestically down double falls into a deep canyon. With the recent rain the waterfall looked spectacular with the noise of the water cascading over the rocks getting louder as you approach along the path overlooking the river. After a half an hour stop we headed back to the coach to continue on to the next stop
Only a few minutes’ drive from Gullfoss is the famous Great Geysir, which has given its name to hot springs all over the world, in Haukadalur valley. Here one of the most active geysers in the area, Strokkur, spouting up to 30 meters erupts every 8-12 minutes and the challenge is to get a decent photograph, not as I did when it erupted as I was trying to take photos into the vent to get a different photographic perspective and I got a warm water drenching!
We spent over an hour here allowing the group to wander round and also dine in the restaurant and look around the well laid out shop. I took the opportunity to have a good walk around the area and walk up the hills overlooking the main geyser field and take some more photos, unfortunately the poor weather meant they were not very clear, which to me means a return trip is a must in order to get some better photos.
After a quick bite to eat we set off to the next, and most spectacular stop on the tour - Þingvellir, a remarkable geological site and the most historic site on the island, located by Lake Þingvallavatn, the largest lake on the island which we drive alongside to the parking area The area is now a National Park. The beautiful canyon running through the park is actually the meeting point of two of the earth’s tectonic plates, and Þingvellir´s combination of natural phenomena and historical significance make it inseparable from the fabric of Icelandic national life.
Our stop here, in the rain, allows everyone to see the extraordinary power of nature. The Þingvellir area is part of a fissure zone running through Iceland, being situated on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The faults and fissures of the area make evident the rifting of the earth’s crust in spectacular fashion. Standing on the path running along the ridge really puts a perspective on the forces involved in creating such amazing features. It was these features and the natural landscape that persuaded the inhabitants to use this area for their first Parliament in 930 and ultimately put it onto the World Heritage list of protected sites. Awe inspiring and a must for geography students.
After a 45 minute stop we board the coach and from Þingvellir we travel over Mosfellsheiði plateau back to Reykjavík after our fantastic drive through some of the most spectacular scenery around the capital. Once back there is a bit of free time to unwind, find some dry clothes and relax with a warm drink. Opinion is that the group have enjoyed the day and are now looking forward to the evening meal and a swim in the Laugardalslaug Geothermal Pool
The evening meal is at Hamborgarafabrikkan, one of our most popular restaurants. Service is quick, efficient and the food of a good standard. No 1 Factory Burger all round with vegetarian options available. The atmosphere is lively with spontaneous bursts of applause from various tables throughout as celebrating diners are served. At the end of the meal one of the students had the honour of ringing the bell and advancing the population counter on the wall.
After the meal the coach took us on the short trip to the thermal swimming pool. Laugardalslaug Geothermal Pool is the largest pool in Iceland, with arguably the best facilities: an Olympic-size indoor pool, an outdoor pool, four hot pots (Jacuzzi pools) and a whirlpool, a steam bath, and a curling 86m water slide. The group spent nearly 2 hours here and had a brilliant time, the best part of the tour so far for some of them and a great way to end the day. The coach dropped us back at the hotel and some of the group still had the energy to wander down to the local shops and get more food!
After breakfast the group and I went our separate ways again, the group boarded the coach for a city tour of Reykjavik and I set out to walk around the local area to gain a better understanding of the layout. I walked between hotels and restaurants to assess potential walking risks and also distances between the different hotels and the various restaurants in order to put together a fact sheet for future groups.
I then walked into Reykjavik (about 45minutes) to meet up with the group. With lots going on in Reykjavik over the weekends in Summer this is a great time to visit with street entertainment and most of the shops open on Sundays – not always the case in the winter months when many close. There is plenty to see in and around the town centre and although it is not the cheapest place to shop there are still bargains to be had and a wide choice of eateries available. We were booked at Hornid Pizza for a late lunch before our whale watch tour.
This was the first time I had used this restaurant for groups and I was impressed by the array of self service pizzas brought out for the group, along with generous amounts of soft drinks and garlic bread. The group struggled to eat their way through the sheer volume of pizzas and we ended up with 2 boxed takeaways! From here it was only a short walk, via one of the city centre ice cream vendors, down to the harbour to catch our boat for an evening whale watch cruise with Elding.
Whale watching tours run year round in Iceland with the best time for viewing being over the summer months, from April to the end of October. At this time the most common sightings are of Minke Whales and white-beaked dolphins with the occasional Humpback seen as well. We headed out of Reykjavík and the sea was very calm. Our first sighting was some White-Beaked Dolphins. There were about four to five of them together moving quite slowly. We eventually came upon a large pod of about 10-12 white beaked dolphins. We got to see these amazing creatures travelling together. We then saw a Minke Whale, at last I could finally add this majestic animal to the list of wildlife I have seen in its natural environment. We saw it surface a few times before we continued again out to sea and found even more Minke whales. This time there were two of them surfacing more regularly, however, they did not come very close to the boat or show themselves all that well. We eventually headed back to Reykjavik where we saw a few puffins at Akurey (Puffin Island). The trip was a personal highlight for me: to see whales as well as the dolphins on one trip was a fantastic experience and one I shall long remember..
From the harbour we got the coach back to the hotel, once more to dry off and for several of the group to again make their way down to the shops for more food. For many it was to be an early night with the coach due to arrive in the early hours for the return transfer to the airport.
The hotel very kindly laid on the normal breakfast spread for the group, despite the early departure. This was very much appreciated as it was going to be a long day ahead. Gradually the group appeared in the lounge ready for departure, some looking a little more awake than others. After a short delay the coach arrived and we loaded up for the journey back to the airport.
50 minutes later on a wet, gloomy morning we arrived at the airport and joined the queue for check in – within 30 minutes we were through security and wandering around duty free thanks to highly efficient check in procedures and only a few travelers at 6 o’clock in the morning in Reykjavik. The airport itself is still under re-development and has changed a lot in the last year with a much better selection of shops and eateries available, thanks in part to the increased boost in tourism from the US , but also the increase from the UK market. The work will continue to improve the facilities and it is worth spending a bit of time looking around prior to flying home. It has to be noted that Iceland is not the cheapest country for many things but there are deals to be had if you are prepared to look.
The flight left on time and with most of us sleeping all the way back went quite quickly! There was a slight delay in landing but once on the ground everyone disembarked, pleased to be back in the UK sunshine and looking forward to getting home.
I enjoyed the experience of travelling with the group and it was a chance for me to enhance my knowledge of Iceland as well as learn from a group the things they find important when doing these visits. As a student I never got to experience this sort of adventure when I was at school and from this trip I can see just how much the students enjoy their time away from school whilst learning from seeing geography in action: from explosive geysers and thundering glacial streams to extensive lava fields and dramatic landscapes. Iceland is a dynamic geographical country and one that any student of the subject will find fascinating as each day brings the pages of the textbook to life.