Sunday, 30 September 2012

Iceland road trip travel blog - May 2012

Out of everywhere I've visited, Iceland is the one that's elicited the most polar reactions from people. It's split almost entirely into, "wow, what was it like? I've always wanted to go there!" and "what on earth would you want to go there for?! Isn't it really cold?" Even though it's some time since our trip to Iceland, for this reason amongst others it's one thing I've meant to blog about regardless. It was such a unique experience and there are so many insights I picked up along the way that I've wanted to share.

I've wanted to go to Iceland for a number of years, the unspoilt extensive scenery really appealed to me. I managed to use my birthday this year as a excuse to make the trip happen. Although I normally organise holiday itineraries, hotels and flights myself, as I was nervous of the language barrier I booked the Around Iceland trip through Discover the World. With hindsight, most of the Icelandic people we met spoke English as well as I do, and with less of an accent, so in future I'd be less nervous of organising everything myself. Although Discover the World booked the flights, hire car and hotels for us, and provided us with a 'Places to Visit' booklet, it was down to us to design an itinerary within those constraints. I've not referred to or reviewed the hotels we stayed in here, and have done that separately through Trip Advisor.

We chose May to visit Iceland partly as data showed it to be the driest time to visit, with photography being a main reason for our visit that was important to us. It also meant that we had no need for the waterproof trousers that every guidebook seemed to suggest as a compulsory purchase, but we stubbornly refused to buy. We were also keen to go outside the main holiday season, so we were more likely to have places to ourselves. Again, that worked well, it was only when we reached the Golden Circle that we encountered more than just a few other people at the sights we visited. On the downside, some museums and other attractions hadn't yet opened for the season, the wind was bitingly cold, not all roads were open, and whilst the long, light days meant we could choose the best part of the day for our sight seeing, it could make it difficult to sleep, but we just adapted our plans as we went. It certainly felt to us that we'd picked the right time to visit.

Day 1 - Reykjavik

We arrived at Keflavik airport mid afternoon, collected our luggage, changed some sterling into Icelandic krona (although you can pay by credit card almost everywhere in Island, it seemed counter intuitive not to have some local currency) and collected our hire car. We'd opted for a four wheel drive Skoda Octavia estate. This turned out to be a very sensible decision, without a heavy, sturdy four-wheel drive car, I'm not sure we'd have made it around Iceland without incident. I'm glad we decided on the upgrade from the Suzuki Swift that we saw many other tourists driving. We checked it carefully for damage and reported a couple of extra chips in the paintwork, which the hire car company marked with stickers. We then hit the road, heading for our hotel in Reykjavik. The landscape immediately hit us as being like nothing we'd seen before, with lava fields on both sides. We'd brought our sat nav from home which successfully got us to Reykjavik and we managed to find our hotel easily enough. 

We dropped our bags in the room and decided to head out for food. The one thing I'll remember about Iceland is the wind. If you look outside the window, the weather looks beautiful, clear blue skies, and with few trees, it is hard to tell if there is a wind blowing. Let me assure you though, there is, and it's blowing straight off the Arctic Circle. We quickly decided that the mile walk into the city centre which would be a stroll in England wouldn't be as pleasant in the biting wind, and got back into the car. We parked up near the harbour and went for a walk around to see some some of the landmarks. However, within half an hour I had a very grumpy husband, frozen to the core despite wearing a fleece, windproof jacket, hat and gloves. We headed for the nearest supermarket and grabbed a hot coffee and sandwich and headed back to the car to eat them in the warm. Not wanting to venture back outside, we decided to head back to the hotel, but via Hallgrimskirkja. It was so stunning once we got there that we couldn't resist jumping out of the car to take some photos. Fuelled by warm coffee and the daylight lasting longer than we were used to, we then made a couple of other photo stops on the way back to the hotel.
The Sun Voyager Sculpture in Reykjavik
Day 2 - Reykjavik to Grundarfjörður

We headed out of Reykjavik with the intention of taking a less direct route to the Snæfellsness peninsula to take in the sights. The countryside was barren, but beautiful and as we headed out of Reykjavik, cars passed us less and less frequently, until it felt like we had the countryside to ourselves.Scenery outside Reykjavik
The roads in Iceland aren't very well marked, not helped by the fact that many place names are unpronounceable so it's hard for the map reader to tell the driver what to look out for, but we managed to find our way to Deildartunguhver, the most powerful hot spring in Iceland. We knew we'd found the right place as soon as we'd arrived, as we could immediately smell the sulphur in the air. This was when we first realised how uncommercialised and unspoilt Iceland is, for a significant attraction, not only is it free, with no overt health and safety barriers, despite the spring water being at almost boiling point, there are also no facilities. Iceland is definitely not a country to tour if you, or your travelling companions, have a weak bladder.Deildartunguhver
  After Deildartunguhver, we continued our journey via Gerðuberg to Grundarfjörður, through more deserted countryside, arriving at our hotel just as it was starting to rain.Outskirts of Grundarfjörður
Day 3 - Snæfellsness peninsula
In the morning we headed west out of Grundarfjörður, passing Kirkjufell on the edge of the town.Kirkjufell
Our first mistake in reading the Icelandic map, was to assume that stars were viewpoints. As we headed out along a gravel track, which became increasingly rutted, with larger and larger chunks of stone, and tried to marry up the landmarks on the map with those we could see, we realised that perhaps the viewpoint at Öndverðarnes we were heading for was actually a lighthouse. The wind had reached new levels, being on the western coast of the island, so photographs were taken as quickly as we could.
We then picked our way back along the track (not for the first time thanking Skoda for making such sturdy cars), stopping at Skarðsvík, as a beach with golden sand it is pretty unusual within Iceland.Skarðsvík
Next we headed back to the main road and continued our journey south around the peninsular to Djúpalónssandur, a black sand beach. The beach is known for its four lifting-stones, on which fishermen tested their strength. The biggest is known as Fullsterkur (“Fully-strong”), weighs 155 kg and is very difficult to lift. Hálfsterkur (“Half-strong”) is 140 kg, Hálfdrættingur (“Weakling”), 49 kg and Amlóði (“Useless”), 23 kg. Men who could not lift Hálfdrættingur were not accepted on the fishing boats.  
Djúpalónssandur lifting stones 
After a walk along the beach, we headed up to the cliffs above, it was beautiful sitting on the heather in the sun, in the shadow of the Snæfellsjokull glacier.  
Djúpalónssandur clifftop
 Once we'd got back to the car, we continued our trip around the peninsula, via Hellnar, Búðir and Stykkishólmur before heading back to the hotel.
Church at Búðir
Day 4 - Grundarfjörður to Akureyri

We had a relatively long drive ahead of us, and so made an early start, heading east out of Grundarfjörður. Our first stop was at Víðimýri to see the turf church. We'd also hoped to visit the Glaumbær Museum, but we were just slightly too early in the season as it didn't open until 1st June.
Víðimýri turf church
We arrived in Akureyri mid afternoon and explored on foot, as well as buying Icelandic woollen hats and gloves to keep out the weather, before checking into our hotel next to the church. 

Day 5 - Akureyri to Mývatn

Our first stop of the day was Goðafoss. By the time we got there the weather was quite overcast and a number of other cars had just arrived. We went to explore the area surrounding the waterfall and by the time we returned, we had the place to ourselves. It was incredibly impressive and you could stand on rocks right next to the chasm in the land, with no barriers blocking your view. 
GoðafossWe headed on our way to Mývatn, through it, and on to the geothermal field at Hverir. The smell of sulphur hit us as soon as we opened the car doors. You can walk right up to the mud pots and fumaroles, at least until the wind changes direction, when you either turn your back or hold your breath!
Mud pots at Hverir
Mud pots at Hverir
Fumarole at HverirFrom Hverir, we headed past the Krafla power plant and up to the crater, Viti, formed in a volcanic eruption in the 18th century, but currently filled with snow.Viti craterWe'd been worried we might not get to see Dettifoss, but luckily the new road on the western side was clear of snow. The same couldn't be said of the car park, or the path from the car park to the viewpoint, but we were dressed for it. We could hear Dettifoss before we saw it, and unfortunately you can't see the full drop of the water from the west bank, but it's very impressive nonetheless.Dettifoss
 Having seen the signs to Selfoss on our way, we decided to take the scenic trip back to the car via Selfoss. It was well worth the walk, being at the end of the valley you could see the full drop of the water. The only bit of drama came on the way back to the car, due to the snow, I'd unknowingly veered off the path and managed to fall through the snow for the full length of one leg. Andrew rolled his eyes and pulled me out and we carried on, with me taking a bit more effort to stick to the signed paths!
SelfossDay 6 - Mývatn area

We headed up to Húsavík, as we'd heard that there were cliffs nearby where puffins could be spotted. On arrival though, we realised that it was closed for the nesting season. Instead, we stopped and took a few photos of the coastline before heading back to Húsavík and exploring the town.
Coastline east of Húsavík
HúsavíkAfterwards, we headed back to Mývatn to take a closer look at the pseudo craters, formed by steam explosions, before heading back to the hotel for the night.
Mývatn pseudo craterDay 7 - Mývatn to Seyðisfjörður

By this point we'd been in Iceland a week and hadn't come close to seeing a puffin. We therefore made a decision to take the scenic route to Seyðisfjörður. The route there wasn't the easiest, we went over snowy hills and the coastal road was more a windy, rutted gravel track, with no barriers to stop you falling to your death. Luckily we didn't meet anyone coming in the other direction!
Snowy Icelandic scenery
Coastal route to SeyðisfjörðurI'd found out about Hafnarhólmi on-line, but it took a lot of faith to find. We seemed to reach the last village in north east Iceland, and then just kept going. It was well worth it though. When you get there, there's a a small harbour with stairs going over the cliffs to viewing platforms. When we first arrived we were disappointed that there was no sign of any puffins, until we squinted at the orange, black and white dots bobbing out on the sea and realised they were puffins. After a while they started coming back to their nests in their own ungainly style of flight. We were some distance away and my zoom lens wasn't quite powerful enough, but we watched then until we risked filling up our memory cards.Puffins at Hafnarhólmi
Puffins at Hafnarhólmi
We headed back up and over the hills on our way to Seyðisfjörður and were lucky enough to see a herd of wild reindeer crossing the plain in front of us, something we'd not expected to see. By the time we arrived in Seyðisfjörður, we were glad to be able to check into the hotel and put our feet up for the night.Wild reindeer in Iceland
Day 8 - Seyðisfjörður

We started the day with a walk around Seyðisfjörður. We had initially planned to head out to Skálanes to look for more wildlife, but as the road, became track, became rutted path, became more more chasm than path, we decided to give up before we twisted an axle and wrote off the hire car. Instead we headed along the northern side of the fjord, which was a much more sedate drive.
Outskirts of Seyðisfjörður
Afterwards, we decided to head down to Mjóifjörður, it was beautiful when we got there, but the drive up and over the hills was challenging. There were areas where snow was still compacted on the road with little warning. It was a relief to get back to Seyðisfjörður for the evening.
MjóifjörðurDay 9 - Seyðisfjörður to Djúpivogur

We'd been keeping an eye on the weather throughout our trip and knew that this was the day when it would change. If you're travelling with a smart phone, it's worth saving to your favourites to give you detailed Icelandic weather information. We left Seyðisfjörður early, but as soon as we got to the top of the hills surrounding the village we were in blizzard conditions. We plotted our route to maximise the time we'd spend on lower ground and made it to Djúpivogur in one piece. Once there we stayed indoors, not wanting to venture out into the gale force winds.
Day 10 - Djúpivogur to Skaftafell

The gales had continued throughout the night, with our window rattling enough that at some points I thought the glass might blow in. We had a leisurely breakfast as it was clear we wouldn't be heading out immediately. We checked out and loaded the car, but were lucky enough that the hotel were happy to let us continue to use their wifi to monitor the roads. Again, the site was a huge help, and one to save to your favourites as it will advise road conditions. We were holed up in the hotel with two other English couples, one who were doing the same clockwise route as us, and one who were travelling in an anticlockwise direction. At about 3pm the road north opened, so they apprehensively headed on their way. We bumped into them in Heathrow at the end of our holiday. Apparently, the following day they'd slipped off the road and had to be towed back onto it by a local farmer's tractor, organised by their travel company. Not wanting to brave the north any further, they didn't manage to finish their circular trip and instead retraced their steps back south. 

At 4pm, the road south opened, we immediately sprung into action, not wanting to miss the window of opportunity, and knowing we had a long drive ahead of us. The other couple had a smaller car and were nervous of the conditions and so we set off in convoy. We stopped to get fuel at the town's petrol station and were joined by another car who'd heard we were heading south and wanted to join our convoy. Full of fuel, we led our little band of weather refugees out of Djúpivogur. The screen shot from my phone shows us passing the sensor on the road south of Djúpivogur, we were the three cars to pass in the last ten minutes and three out of only forty-one who had braved the road all day. By the time we reached, Skaftafell we were happy to just book into our hotel and relax for the evening.
Day 11 - Skaftafell

We started the day by heading over to Jökulsárlón, we'd planned to take a boat trip out amongst the icebergs, but due to the inclement weather, the boats weren't operating. After taking in the lagoon, we took a bracing walk down to beach to see the blocks of ice washed up on the black sand.Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon
Jökulsárlón beachAfterwards we headed back to Skaftafell National Park and followed the path from the Visitors Centre to Svartifoss. It started sleeting on the walk up, and the weather, combined with the weight of my camera bag meant I didn't make it all the way to the foot of the falls. I did however, get close enough to see the waterfall surrounded by the dark lava formations before returning to the warmth of the car, once Andrew returned too, we headed back to the warmth of the hotel.
SvartifossDay 12 - Skaftafell to Hveragerði

We'd originally planned to visit Dyrhólaey, but as it was closed for the nesting season, instead visited Reynisfjara. The beach is known for its black sand, basalt columns and occasional puffin visitor, we explored but unfortunately didn't spot any puffins. 
As we'd not made it to the Glaumbær Museum earlier in our trip, we decided to call at the Skógar Folk Museum, for a whistle-stop tour through how Icelandic people used to live and work. As well as tools and instruments used for fishing and farming, there are reconstructed buildings and old vehicles.
Skógar Folk MuseumOnly about a mile away is Skógafoss, a waterfall with a sixty metre drop. You couldn't get too close without getting damp, but it was worth it to sense the power of the water.
SkógafossNot having seen quite enough waterfalls, our final stop of the day was at Seljalandsfoss. It was clear we were getting close to the main tourist trail, as this was the most people we'd seen in a single location since we left Heathrow. It was very picturesque though, and worth joining the crowds for. After Seljalandsfoss, we finished our journey to Hveragerði where we were resting our heads for the night.
SeljalandsfossDay 13 - The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is the route around the most well known tourist attractions in Iceland. We started with Kerið, a volcanic crater lake which we weren't actually planning to visit, but as we were driving past it would have been rude not to drop in. 
Kerið volcanic crater lakeThe site I'd most been looking forward to seeing was Geysir and it didn't disappoint. The 'Great Geysir' has been dormant for some time but Strokkur erupts reliably every five to ten minutes. We spent a lot of time waiting and watching before we decided we really should get round the other sites.

The next stop off was at Gullfoss, Iceland's most popular waterfall and the first two-tiered falls we'd managed to get a proper look at. We were incredibly lucky with the weather, with the sun and the spray forming a rainbow.
GullfossFinally, we headed for Þingvellir, site of the ancient parliament and rift valley. I have to admit that I struggled with Þingvellir. The information centre sold a lot of books, but didn't really offer much information to help us find our way around such a large site. However, we followed our noses and I think we saw what we wanted to see. Unfortunately though, we didn't manage to find the spot where you could stand with a foot on each tectonic plate. We headed back to Hveragerði for our penultimate night in Iceland.
Þingvellir panoramaDay 14 - Hveragerði to Reykjavik

We headed over to Reykjavik in the morning. As this was our last full day in Iceland we headed to the Kringlan mall for souvenir shopping. Our only other objective for the day was to call at the Bæjarins beztu pylsur hot dog stand, for one of what are rumoured to be the best hot dogs in the world. We couldn't miss that out of our trip! 

Day 15 - Reykjavik

We had a short list of things we wanted to do before we left Reykjavik, and started by revisiting Hallgrimskirkja, as we hadn't been able to go inside when we were first there. We took the lift to the viewing platform which gave us amazing views over Reykjavik. Afterwards we visited a couple of the other churches in town, plus Lake Tjörnin, before heading out to Keflavik.
View of Reykjavik from HallgrimskirkjaWe handed the hire car back and were amazed for it to be given a clean bill of health after everything we'd put it through. The only question for us was how it was so clean, clearly most people don't wash down the car part way through the holiday so that they can see out of the windows! We headed for our flight with bulging memory cards and plenty of memories of a holiday unlike any other.

 If you're planning a trip to Iceland and have any queries or want any advice, feel free to ask and I'll help if I can. Alternatively, If you've been to Iceland yourself, leave me a comment, I'd love to hear about your trip.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The orthodontist will see you now - My consultation for braces

For years, whenever I've looked at a photograph of myself a little bit of me dies inside  with the realisation that I don't have the perfect straight, white teeth which everyone seems to have on television and in magazines. I hated my teeth when I was younger, and always smiled with my mouth shut. It was only when some brave soul told me that it looked stupid that I stopped. I'm a lot older now and have gained confidence along the way, so now I smile, showing off my teeth. They may not be perfect, but they're mine.

That was all working well until a series of events had me sitting in an orthodontist's chair. My husband works for an orthodontic practice and my own dentist had been devoid of nursing staff when I last saw him. My teeth were in a worse state than usual, desperate for a scale and polish, and my husband suggested I visit his practice. Before seeing the hygienist, I had to see the orthodontist. He asked how I felt about my teeth and made a throw away comment about how he could straighten them easily and to let him know if I was ever interested. I then saw the hygienist for the most thorough (and stressful) cleaning my teeth had ever had, but the seed had been sown.

Three months on and today was my consultation appointment to decide what could be done. He started by discussing what was motivating me to be there and what I was looking to achieve. He then examined my teeth to check they were all healthy and had a panoramic x-ray done of my teeth, to check my roots were all strong and healthy. I also had impressions done. Then it was a case of discussing options. I have a crossover bite, with two of my incisors biting inside, not outside my lower teeth. As such, that left me with the options of traditional metal braces, the modern equivalent of ceramic braces or lingual braces. I immediately ruled out metal braces, in my mind I know with full certainty that I would look like Jaws from the James Bond films. After much feeling of the model teeth on his desk displaying each of the options, I decided on ceramic braces. Linguals fit inside your teeth and as such are invisible but can give you a lisp initially and your tongue is sore until you get used to them. The ceramic braces, whilst visible, aren't awful to look at, and are easier to get used to. Seeing pictures of both Tom Cruise and Danny from McFly both wearing them made me think that maybe I can convince myself that I'm joining an exclusive club for 12 to 15 months. That's how long it will take, by Christmas 2013, I may have the straight, white teeth that I've always wanted.

The only downside is that I need a tooth out to give a bit more room for movement. Everyone tells me it'll be fine and it won't hurt, but I still know that I'll be a nervous wreck on the day. I just need to focus on the fact that it'll be worth it in the end.

I'll post updates on my progress and, of course the obligatory before and after shots! But for now, this is the exclusive club I'll be joining!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Blowing away the cobwebs at Dyrham Park

After a busy week at work, we were determined to get out and enjoy the weekend's dry weather. We've been National Trust members for ages, always thinking it would get us out of the house at the weekend but have made embarrassingly little use of it. Today was the day to change that.

We decided on Dyrham Park, which is only about half an hour from home. It has a baroque mansion set in an ancient deer park. We set out with the aim of exploring the gardens, and didn't really expect to see any deer.

We set off from the car along the blue route, and after only ten minutes or so spotted some deer in the distance. We decided to walk slowly towards then to get a better view and ended up standing only about fifty feet away from them. They were completely unperturbed by our presence, which gave us the opportunity to get a few photos of them grazing and locking antlers. I could have stayed for hours watching them, but once I'd started to feel the cold, it was time to continue on our way towards the house.

We decided to leave the inside of the house for another day, and explored the West Garden, church and pond areas. By this time we'd built up an appetite and headed to the tea room for a cream tea, which completely hit the spot.

Well fed, we headed back to the car, taking the red route, which took us via Neptune Hill, giving us a great view looking down on the house. We headed home with plenty of photographs on our memory cards, and wondering just how I'm managed to get so much sheep poo on me, when we'd not seen any sheep. Just accident prone, I guess!