Iceland in October

CardIt was last Christmas, 2015, when Dee opened an envelope containing her Christmas present which promised the Great Aurora Borealis hunt in February during a five-day trip to Iceland. Unfortunately, she was in the middle of chemotherapy again by the dates we intended to fly so we looked for the next best window to have a chance of catching the northern lights and it appeared that October would be best. We agonised throughout the year about whether we’d make it or not but we left Heathrow at one o’ clock on 12 October after a leisurely brunch in the lounge. At both ends the request for wheelchair assistance proved vital as not only were the distances considerable but when you are guided through the airport many queues are jumped, corners cut and arrival at the plane is so much easier. The flight was straightforward and we picked up our rental car via a shuttle bus with strict warnings about not driving on non-tarmacked road which might cause chips in the paintwork. There was also a brief discussion about football with our clerk being a Liverpool fan who was very pleased that Watford had just beaten Man United. He’d have been ecstatic if he’d known that in two weeks’ time Liverpool were to beat us 6-1! There was enough light for us to take in the volcanic landscapes as we headed towards Reykjavik’s ring road in order to head off east to our first hotel at Hella in the south of the island.

As the roads became less busy and we entered wilder territory we started to spot plumes of steam coming from the ground and while knowing that geysers existed all over Iceland having them erupt yards from the road was a bit of a surprise. There were also frequent waterfalls on our left – the hillier part of the landscape with a flat plain to our right stretching away to the coast. Untitled-1The hotel was well signposted and we checked in and were shown to a very pleasant room in the west wing of the log cabin like structure that was the Hotel Ranga. We unpacked, relaxed and then went to the bar for a beer and a cocktail. I was impressed by the range of craft beers – pale ale, red beer, wheat beers and stouts and Dee by the Icelandic vodka in her martini. Next morning we woke to appreciate the view over lawns with hot tubs and down to a river estuary.

We had little choice being so far from anywhere but to eat at the hotel’s restaurant. Fish, reindeer, lamb and puffin are the specialities but we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to eat a whole puffin so settled for wild mushroom soup and a duck salad as starters and then reindeer and arctic char as our mains. There was a very tempting Muga Reserva on the wine list but also a better value Rioja from Torres which was most acceptable. We were joined during our dinner by Fridrik Palsson, the owner who tries to chat to all guests during their stay in order to keep his customer service up to the mark. During a pleasant exchange of travel and service experiences he insisted that we try the smoked puffin which fortunately came in small slices a bit like smoked duck breast with beetroot sauce. Her stomach somewhat delicate anyway, Dee declined but I sampled this extraordinarily fishy tasting meat – but then puffins do just feed on fish so I guess it was only to be expected. Eating and drinking are not cheap in Iceland – no, nothing is cheap in Iceland – so we were thrilled to discover that our meal had been largely paid for by a mystery phone call from the UK which on investigation turned out to be from my daughter. What a lovely thought! Travel and food are tiring but on our way back to the room we nonetheless signed up for the Wake Me if the Aurora comes service whereby the night manager phones you if the skies clear and there’s a chance of a sighting – some guests clearly got lucky! As we’d driven through quite a lot of heavy rain dumped by the tail end of hurricane Matthew or maybe it was Nicole, we didn’t expect to be disturbed tonight. And so it proved and throughout our stay the skies remained unremittingly grey with not a glimmer of northern lights or even sunlight for that matter until our last day.

So maybe the skies weren’t playing ball but the geysers and waterfalls were not too far away so we spent the next day visiting Gulfoss and Geysir where the eponymous big gusher doesn’t do its stuff much anymore but Strokkur blasts 60 feet of steaming water into the air every six or ten minutes. Both the waterfalls and the geysers were impressive and well worth the rather chilly, damp visit.

The journey back was through some brilliant volcanic and mountain scenery with black lakes, sheer cliffs, waterfalls and lots of fumaroles.

After a very disturbed night our check out and departure saw a pale and delicate Dee climb into the car to make our way to a lunch time appointment at the Blue Lagoon something we had both been very keen to try but which now looked in some doubt. IMG_7674Fortified with paracetamol Dee perked up as the journey progress including overriding SatNav’s instructions and taking us through the Reykjanesfólkvangur Natural Park the splendid scenery and rock formations of which were viewed from a granite chip road so a little trepidation there about the state of the paint work, unfounded thank goodness thanks to my unusually cautious driving.

Typical lava field in the Rekyanesfolkvangur National Park

We made it to the Blue Lagoon and after a few problems and delays with crowded changing rooms and the insistence on naked showering prior to entry to the lagoon, we finally made it out into the 38° water with 4° in the air around our heads. It’s an amazing feeling and we were both very glad we’d persevered. The water feels like it contains lots of healthy minerals and indeed these are what give it its blue colour. Oh and they throw in these iPad photos as part of the entrance fee.

As always there were very tempting things in the gift shop at the usual eye-watering prices. We regained the car and headed off for Reykjavik where we were to spend three nights. The hotel was right in the centre of town – I suppose Hotel Reykjavik Centrum was a bit of a give-away – and there was a convenient pull-in just in front for us to unload and check in before I took the car back to the rental company before they closed at seven.

IMG_1985Our room was great with windows in the pointed tower that stood at the corner of the building. It also had a shower module into which all you need was packed into a very small space – inspiration for our thoughts about building a downstairs loo and shower room at home. I went back down to find chaos at the car. I was in a bus pull-in preventing a bus with thirty Americans from checking in. Oops! There was a ticket on the windscreen too which the rental company forwarded to me later – it was for a tenner! I drove off sheepishly towards the street name on the rental agreement which proved deep into the eastern suburbs beyond the ring road. There was a large shop and warehouse strip but no signs for Thrifty. There was an automotive parts store so I asked in there and they said there were some bays marked with Thrifty in the car park and I should put it in one of those and put the keys through the letterbox of the Toyota dealership. I duly did this more in hope than conviction and then walked to a nearby filling station to see if they could recommend a number to get a taxi back into town. They called a friendly cabbie who was coming in to fill up anyway and within five minutes we were heading back into the centre. Taxi drivers the world over like to grumble it seems and he was bemoaning the growth of Reykjavik swallowing up surrounding small towns in its sprawl, encouraging foreigners to come and take all the jobs and stag and hens parties who always argued drunkenly about the fare. Might have been in London.

IMG_2010Next day over a coffee in a bar just across from the hotel with some ancient coffee grinding machinery as part of its decor, we decided the to take the Reykjavik City Bus tour to orientate ourselves. It didn’t take long and included as a highlight a visit to the bus depot from where we could obtain bus rides all over Iceland! Most impressive.

The tour delivered us back at Harpa the new concert and exhibition centre in the harbour which we explored for a while admiring its hexagonal glass panel construction which threw interesting light patterns around the structure. We found a good place for a light lunch and explored the centre of the city a little further before going back to the hotel for a rest and a read. Over a drink in the bar we chatted to some other guests and discovered that Iceland is often used as a meeting point for far-flung families. Some Germans were meeting up with cousins from Detroit and lots of Canadians with French and British relatives. It makes sense when you think about it  – except that what you save on travel costs you spend on food and drink.

A cocktail at Apotek

That evening we went to the excellent Apotek restaurant where the glittering youth of Reykjavik paraded in all their finery and we sat and consumed excellent food watching them all being peacocks and hens – highly diverting.


One notable feature was again the popularity of puffin and whale on the menu here at Apotek and all over Iceland it seems.

Saturday was our last full day so we made it to the Culture House where we saw a not entirely inspiring art exhibition, some excellent art nouveau furniture and became engaged in conversation with a lady in the splendid IMG_1979library about Icelandic literature and legends and family names. We retired to the hotel for lunch and to listen to Swansea v Watford on Hornets Player. Having taken all three points at Middlesbrough the previous week we had high hopes but when goalkeeper Gomes was named man of the match you know it wasn’t our day but a point is a point.


Dee needed a lie down after all the excitement and I decided to take my camera and go for a walk around some other parts of the city. Just as I reached the lake that projects into the centre the sun came out for the first time and I had a quick hope that there might just be a clear night and we’d get to see the northern lights at the last gasp. A couple of weeks before they had turned off all the street lights in the capital so that people could see the brilliant light display in the sky.

No luck for us though, the cloud gap was small and short lived and soon the grey blanketed the city again.

IMG_2023The sun taunted us again the next day. As we took off and banked over the Blue Lagoon the sun’s reflection flashed across it. We hadn’t got what we came for but neither of us had any regrets about making the trip. The landscapes were amazing and as an erstwhile geography teacher Dee was glad to have seen them. The people were friendly, the food was good and at last I was able to deliver last year’s Christmas present.

And that brings the retro-blogs up to date. It’s been quite cathartic for me to look through our notes again and select photographs to illustrate each blog. There have been moments when I’ve needed a towel to stop the keyboard getting soaked but mostly there’s been laughter and joy at the fun we’ve had and the experiences we’ve shared. Many of you have been kind enough to tell me that you’ve enjoyed reading them – thank you for that. I’m off to Spain again in a few weeks and the habit may return then – watch this space!

The Obligatory Tourists

23 sushi pink  What can we expect

          from a very early start

          in Hakodate?

Apologies to Anne Tyler for today's title.

So we are at Hakodate Station bright and early – two hours till tourist information opens. So we take a cab to the hotel – not far but dragging all those cases at this hour does not appeal. The hotel is friendly, allows me to charge the gear enough to post my apology, gives us coffee for free and a map but is quite adamant that check in is 4 pm. So a morning’s kip is out of the question – it’s only 8 degrees so a park bench is rejected as an option. We’d read that the Morning Market is a popular attraction so off we set, coffee buzz overcoming the yawns.

As we walk down the main street we muse: if Kobe felt European, Osaka like being in New York, Hakodate feels like the US mid west or provincial Canada. There are big wide streets with low buildings and the most prominent feature is the electricity and telephone cables and their supports. So clearly significant are they that the tour guide we got later lists the first concrete telegraph pole in Japan as a sight to visit. I think we missed it. It does have beautiful manhole covers though – a feature that you can find in many Japanese cities representing their specific identity.

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We reached the market area to be truly astonished. So many shops, three big indoor market areas, tempting free samples being offered at every corner. The Morning Market is superb and helped us spend our first two hours revelling in the sight of fresh fish, massive crabs and vegetables and filling our hungry mouths – remember last night’s train dinner! A first for both of us was sea urchin – orangey-pink, smooth with a bit of grain and delicious if a bit rich – the idea of eating a whole one was a bit daunting.

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Armed with our map from the now open tourist office we set off to explore the town on its excellent streetcar service. As one of the first cities in Japan to opened for trade in 1854 along with Kobe and Yokohama, it has a lot of  European and American influences mixed with its vernacular architecture, especially near the harbour. We met a Texan who had married a Japanese lady and after much globetrotting had come back to settle in her hometown. He was cycling with a couple of Japanese friends on the first decent weekend of weather. There’s still lots of snow about and with a brisk breeze we didn’t exactly find it balmy.

A big attraction is to go up on a cable car to Mount Hakodate to see the magnificent view over the isthmus that forms the main part of town. Sadly the high winds caused the service to be suspended but you can see what we didn’t here. So after wandering around the harbour area and the old colonial region we took the streetcar to Goryokaku Fort, an unusual five-pointed star shaped structure designed in 1855. Its shape apparently gave opportunities for more gun emplacements and better protection. In three weeks time it will be one the the country’s top cherry blossom viewing sites – today we saw swelling buds. It has an observation tower with great views and made for another pleasant if chilly garden stroll.

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Back into town for lunch, check-in and a much wanted shower. Dee did a bit of online research for dinner and came up with a recommendation from several sites for a restaurant Uni Murakami. Clearly there was nowhere else in town we could eat. It was a struggle to find and only average when we got a table after a lengthy wait. Shame.

When travelling by car it’s difficult to keep blogs up to date so at the time of writing this on Tuesday evening 30 April, we have just had the most amazing news via good friend Steve Resco in Hong Kong that the Hobgoblin Bar in Roppongi in Tokyo will show the Watford v Leeds game on Saturday. Guess where we will be!

As so often, Monday morning dawns bright and clear as we go to pick up the next car and head off north. Our first problem with Mazda/Times Car Rental occurred with no trusty, copiously booted Axela available despite being specifically requested. An hour’s delay after declining a Nissan Note – name, shape and size all totally unacceptable – we eventually set off in a seven-seater people carrier which is OK but not ideal with no cover over our bags in the back (however, with such a low crime rate and vigilant car park attendants it’s not really a problem). We decide to drive on national roads along the stunning coastline which was a mixed decision. It was a great drive but it was slow. We had failed to note that Monday was Greenery Day – a public holiday welcoming spring and, as all over the world, everybody takes to the road on bank holidays. We stopped off at a viewpoint called Panorama Hill which was a great place to eat, look at the sea and the mountains and let kids let off steam. Lunch was a couple of pancake-like slices to make a sandwich. Dee had savoury vegetables. I thought I was getting cheese only to bite into custard – delicious, but I’ve had pudding, now where’s lunch?

Next stop Noboribetsu a region of hot springs and geysers. There’s a rather ugly spa development with a shopping street of questionable value, but the lakes and streams themselves were fascinating and bathing our feet in warm flowing water was brilliant. I’d never done fumaroles, geysers and hot springs before so it was a great experience and we found a monument to a famous haiku writer, Kyoshi Takahama, so I had to go pay my dues for bastardizing the form on a daily basis.

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A remote country road took us back to the main road along the coast and suddenly we were confronted with this:


It knocks anything on Route 1 in Saugus into a cocked hat – crab, salmon and bear – and lit like a Hopper. Awesome! On to Tomakomai for the night with a good dinner immediately opposite the hotel. Result!