Author Archives: Ritchie

Day 7 – Reykjavík

Our last day in Iceland. There’s one more thing I want to check out before we leave, which is the Perlan, or Pearl. Perlan is a water storage facility which supplies Reykjavík hot water. No cisterns or boilers required. Piped straight from a geothermal source, the trade off is that the water smells of eggs, which I guess is from the sulphur.

We caught the 18 bus from Hlemmur bus station. It’s only 3km out, if that. But it’s uphill and thought it was an excuse to use the public transport. It’s an ace building, which includes a panoramic viewing platform which offers views all around Reykjavík.

We walked back, past the pond and the Althing. We found a fish and chips restaurant right at the edge of town by the harbour. Pretty good! The chips were more like wedges, the fish in a spelt wheat batter. The onion rings were phenomenal! Most of the sauces were Skyr-based.

As we ate a lot, quite late, and were tired, we concluded our visit by staying in and eating Icelandic junk – cheese puffs, chocolate, massive cinnamon swirls and 500ml cans of Pepsi. Don’t want to eat sugar again!

Day 6 – Reykjavík

We woke up to a snow-covered Reykjavík, probably an inch thick. We took a good look around the city today.

The sight for me was Hallgrímskirkja, a church built over a long period of time, starting in the late 1930s with decades of building thereafter. It’s a mix of Scandinavian and neo-Gothic. A simple, bleak take on Gothic, resulting in a spooky-looking church. Inside was stunning. Gothic arches, an impressive organ. Blue windows at the alter, which, with the light shining in, gives a hue of cold and bleak fitting in nicely in the Reykjavík landscape. Outside in the shadow of Hallgrímskirkja stood Leif Eriksson, discoverer of North America. In the distance is another church, Háteigskirkja. Alpine-inspired with long spires, black on white masonry work. It stood beautifully and modestly in a complimenting snowy scene.

We walked back down Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s high street. At the end towards Háteigskirkja, it’s not the prettiest of places. As you progress towards the centre it gets prettier. We went to the Parliament (Althing), which is a very inconspicuous building. It’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago outside this building, a large gathering took place and brought about a ‘revolution’. This side of town is lovely.

For lunch we went to Akku Taktu, a bit like McDonalds meets Little Chef. I had a hot dog and some really nice chips, which had a similar coating to ‘chip spice’ which you find in the north of England. For dinner we went to Le Bistro, a French restaurant. Cute and cuddly in side, barely any light. I had a Lamb shank, French style, and some Viking ale. The cost of this meal, comparable to something in the UK, was twice the price.

Day 5 – Golden Circle and on to Reykjavík

We considered using a tour  company for a tour around the Golden Circle. They didn’t get back to us so we decided to set off early and do our own whistlestop tour of the Golden Circle en route to Reykjavík. Time was very tight – the car was being picked up at 3pm. We set off just after 7am, but it had snowed even more overnight (only a centimetre, but on Icelandic roads it’s never clever to go speeding).

We set off, went steady and found that these snow tyres are unstoppable. We picked up the pace, slowing down when we drove past every farmhouse for possible dogs.

We filled at the N1 in Blönduós, and carried on and found a bigger N1 with a café. I bought a (black) tea, hot dog wrapped in bacon and some Skyr yoghurt. Mine was vanilla, a bit sour – Chloe’s strawberry yoghurt was rather nice! Skyr’s basically a natural yoghurt but thicker.

We eventually reached Thingvellir National Park. This was to be a quick stop so we spent no more than an hour at our stop offs throughout Thingvellir. It’s Iceland’s first national park, not too far from the capital. What I wanted to see most was the continental rifts and the original Althing – the world’s first parliament.

The Lögberg, the rock where speakers stood to address the citizen representatives, is overshadowed by the big rift, the Almannagjá. The Almannagjá is a number of storeys high, and quite a distance apart. The plates of North America and Europe are moving up to 2cm apart per year, slowly tearing Iceland apart. It’s quite a spectacle. There’s many other tears around the area; smaller but no less showing of the sheer power.

At this point I rang our car rental place, and asked for an extension which they kindly allowed. We drove another 30km to Geysir, through more jaw-dropping scenery. We got there, after following the steam plumes. The air had a faint eggy smell to it, with sulphur belched from the depths. The boiling water just streamed down the roadside, it was actually near-boiling (I touched it like an idiot, and pulled away quickly!). There’s a number of geysers – the original Geysir is not as strong as it once was, and erupts only every ten years, so the chances of seeing Geysir erupt was slim. However we did see Strokkur, the pin-up geyser you see on every postcard, often mistaken for Geysir. It erupted many times when we were there, every five minutes, and shoots up to 30m high! Unreal!

With very little time left, we sped up to Gullfoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. We had little time and spent no more than five minutes there taking photos. Such a pity as it’s beautiful and highly regret not being able to spend any more time there.

We set off to Mosfellsbær, an area just outside Reykjavík. The shop, Alafoss, is known for Icelandic Lopapeysa, the handknitted sweater associated with Iceland. I picked up one for 15000kr, £80, which is a lot more cheaper than the 20000-25000kr seen in shops around Akureyri.

Time was running out, so we took the car (now covered in filth, the wheel arches caked in volcanic rock and mud) . I washed what I could away, and then sat in traffic because of roadworks. We made it 15 minutes later than arranged.

First impressions of Reykjavík were mixed – graffiti everywhere and a lot of untidy looking places. However there was no litter. We were so tired we had a quick walk around and finished at Dominos. Sleep was tough – our single beds which were pushed together over looked roadworks and a live music bar (I like live music but not when I’m trying to sleep after driving for hours!).

Day 4 – Skagaströnd

The day before, I had a look through the entire collection of leaflets under the coffee table. There was one in German, talking about Skagaströnd. Turns out the rock formation behind our cabin is a great nature walk that skirts the sea. So we made our last day a walk. We didn’t realise how close we were to the sea – just a minute walk led us to a beautiful rocky cove.

The views were great – the snow-capped, mountains crept above, and there were cliffs and rocky beaches facing the Greenland sea. It was pretty cold, but the winter sun coloured the landscape.

Through there were signs informing us about the sealife. I got the feeling this area barely attracted any tourists. Its walkways were hardly worn. We could walk freely over the spongey moss that is so prevalent particularly in this part of Iceland.

The walk is only a few kilometres at most. And we finished by the area where fish processing seemed to, or had, occurred. Typical of a sea-side factory- old machinery, even cars, left to wither in rust outside in the elements. Still, no litter. I took some pictures of the weird murals – one of a man with glasses, one of an older sea-faring man with his weathered face.

The day was clear, which made me hope for a spectacular this evening… but no, no northern lights.

Day 3 – Akureyri

We worked out our days to allow for a big drive, followed by a break, and so on. Chloe definitely didn’t have a break yesterday, so I drove us to Akureyri, Iceland’s second ‘city’.

It’s a good two and a half hour drive from where we were staying, approximately 170km. We woke up early to set off with good time and enjoy the day at a leisurely pace. I opened the blinds to see that the mountains were now pretty much covered in snow, and our patio had a light dusting overnight. Probably enough to bring traffic to a halt in old Blighty.

We rang the road conditions hotline, that informed us that our passage would be icy and to take care (the automated message read something like, “conditions are i-see, and maybe trick-ee” in this lovely Icelandic accent, really wish I recorded it!). Upon considering whether to risk it or not, we decided to stick to our plans and, before setting off, I looked for snow chains in the boot. Turns out we had snow tyres fitted – a requirement for all cars in Iceland. And so we set off. Iceland seemed even quieter with this change of weather.

The roads looked a tad icy and were dusted with snow, but no matter how many times I tried testing the traction, by picking up speed and slamming on the breaks, this thing just wouldn’t skid. It stayed put. The sun was now coming out and with the snow giving the mountains their first coat of white, the colours made Iceland look a completely different place to yesterday. Blue skies, whiteish landscape, and the sun made the rusty colours exaggerated. Not only that, but what seemed to be starved greenery was now bright and lush.

The drive was, again, inspiring. The views were always astonishing. The Route 1 was still a tad snowy when in the mountains, and at freezing point, but the beautiful sun was changing this. On a number of occasions, I had to stop to take advantage of this beautiful weather, to take photos of a landscape which is now benefitting from the onset of winter and a baking sun, which I could imagine how Iceland looks in its 24 hour summer sunlight.

Akureyri is a small town – just 17,000 residents here. An outpost of civilisation in the north, sitting on the Eyjafjörður. It’s significance as Iceland’s second city delivers important shops and restaurants. We looked at a few shops, for Icelandic sweaters (lopapeysa), though I couldn’t make my mind up.

Afterwards we headed to a restaurant on the fifth floor of a building overlooking Eyjafjörður, called Strikið. Pretty cool looking and reasonably priced. They served standard and Icelandic dishes.

Chloe opted for the safe choice of a (raw) hamburger. Being a part-time vegetarian, eating a meal without meat in Iceland is a difficult task. I picked the Icelandic burger. A mashed up patty of beef, goose and reindeer, blended to perfection. Topped with Iceland cheese, rocket (urggh), and… blueberry sauce. It somehow worked!

We continued to Route 1, skirting the fjord, looking for Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods. An important site which turned Icelanders from paganism to Christianity. Iceland’s signage is notoriously shit – so we went down a track for a few kilometres, and turned back as there wasn’t a waterfall. We headed to a plume of steam, and found it (the sign was pointing at the wrong road).

We headed back to look at the Christmas house, and all-year round Christmas shop. It was weird but great. Smelled like Christmas, and felt like Christmas. Excessively pricey mind. The cost of some shitty ornaments could afford me a 4×4 trip to the Icelandic highlands. But that said, worth a visit!

We then carried on to Brynja, a legendary sweet shop just outside Akureyri. We had beautiful ice cream (from milk, not cream), with a moat of hot caramel fudge surrounding it in a pot, with sugared chopped nuts swimming in it. Divine! If you’re in the north, visiting Akureyri just for an ice cream from here is well worth it!

We drove back in the dark, and arrived at the cabin at 8:30 pm. New neighbours – Paul and Matteo from Dublin and Argentina respectively. They were telling me, shouting from one log cabin to another over howling, freezing cold wind, that they’ve been in Iceland for a week, waiting for the Northern Lights, with no luck. I sat, checking every five minutes, for those magical green swirls to appear in the clear sky full of stars. Nothing. Not at 3 am, nor at 5 am.

Day 2 – Skagaströnd and Skagi Peninsular

I awoke at 10am – I don’t think I have ever slept for twelve hours! The mountains outside our window had been peppered with snow overnight. We went to the local supermarket, the Samkaup-úrval and tried to buy Icelandic as many things are imported and therefore costly. Pauper’s dinners for the next few days!

Chloe elected to drive. Think she might regret it! We drove around the Skagi peninsula, and all the roads were gravel roads with sheer drops either side (and so where we encountered the Malbik Endar sign). We barely saw anyone. A few active, but mostly desolate farms, hundreds of ponies. Bleak but beautiful landscapes of lavafields with green, yellow, orange and rusty red blankets of moss engulfing rocks that probably haven’t moved for centuries. The scenery was always liable to turn your head. From streams and little waterfalls to unforgiving rocky coast lines and towering mountains.

Some of these roads were riddled with potholes – I’m sure Chloe was aiming for them! And some of the stretch seemed as though they hadn’t been travelled down for some time. A dog (which from a distance, I was hoping to be an arctic fox), was chasing the car which made us panic. Thankfully it was behind fencing. This barely used 745 gravel road meandered through rocky, lunar landscapes, then hugged the Húnaflói coast overlooking islands and columns in the cold, turquoise-blue Greenland Sea. What seemed like a lifetime, we eventually had Skagafjoður on our left. Drangey and Malmey islands continued to watch us as we drove down the coast. Heading to Sauðárkrókur, we saw the sign for a thermal spring, Grettislaug. We forgot our swim costumes but I wanted to look anyway. 16km, the sign said. Yup, 16km of ridiculous pot holes down a ‘road’. I noticed ahead a huge puddle and didn’t want to risk it, so we turned around and headed to Sauðárkrókur to try and find the shipwreck that I wanted to see. We pulled up at a heritage point. The sign had a diagram of an old ship but I couldn’t be sure this was the spot; I couldn’t see a wreck, though perhaps the sea was in? So we turned back and headed on our way to the cabin.

The drive down the 744 was great – huge mountains of a rust colour topped with snow. The temperature was 0°C, with flutters of snow.

Driving down the 74 to Skagaströnd, a dog started chasing the car, and ran towards us. I slammed the breaks, heart pounding. We missed the dog, thankfully, and the farmer and owner of this dog, looked on and carried on with his work, not phased. My legs went all wobbly. So I slashed my speed and carried on at a slower pace. In the clear, or so I thought, I picked the speed back up and noticed a black lump on a drive way. For a split second I thought to myself, jokingly, ‘curled up dog’. I immediately concluded it was a lump of volcanic rock, nothing unusual about such a rock in Iceland. It then animated and started chasing the car! I thought this one could be a goner. It backed off thankfully, panic averted. My head was throbbing. We got to the cabin with all animals unharmed and we proceeded to eat to packs of plain noodles. I don’t think I want to eat noodles again.

Day 1 – To Iceland!

Our flight from Manchester was at 7 o’clock, meaning we left the house at around 4am. I had around two hours sleep mainly down to trying to take control and tame an overweight suitcase. All those warm clothes take a lot of space up! Bearing in mind I had started to pack a week ago.

The flight was pretty smooth, and being in the morning we could watch our approach to this mysterious island of vast lifeless plains, pitted by mountains and volcanoes.

Keflavík airport looked like your typical stark building you’d expect in harsh conditions – though the inside was astonishing. Great use of volcanic rock and glass, and the arrival and departure areas seemed as one – simple poles and strap fencing to mark the boundary between arrival and departures.

I booked the car pickup for 10am, thinking all along that the Easyjet arrival time was incorrect (8:30 am). Iceland, I kept saying to people, is GMT. Correct, but they don’t follow daylight savings time. At this time of the year, the UK is just about in DST. Anyway, I thought we’d arrive 9:30 am local time, with half an hour for delays and baggage pick up. So in Iceland it was actually 8:30 am. Thankfully, the guy from Blue Car Rental had been tracking our flight, and was there with my name on a board (like in the movies!).

We picked up our car after being talked into the Sand & Ash protection (SAAP) product that, until the recent eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, was probably nearly always declined. Horror stories of the guy who said ‘no’ to SAAP, who subsequently got caught up in the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, had his hire car stripped of paint… thousands of krónur of damage… etc. Anyway, we sat in the car for quite some time trying to figure out how to start this bloody Kia Cee’d. After a while I tried a few combinations, turns out you need your foot on the clutch, and turn the key. So what about retrieving the key from the ignition? Another five minutes passed… push the key in and then turn. Really intuitive design.

I insisted that we travel by map, rather than sat-nav. Our first destination was the Blue Lagoon, which is very close to the airport. We set off on our way, but after wasting at least half an hour driving around what I think was Reykjanesbær, completely lost – I headed back to the car rental place with my arse in my hands.

We eventually got to the Blue Lagoon, after the sat-nav tried to direct us down a thin path running parallel to a power station. The Blue Lagoon is a great tourist destination and should definitely be visited – but probably only once. The architecture is fab. Same sort of feel as the airport, with slabs of thin volcanic brick, thin windows which accentuated the height of the building. I name this style ‘bleak chic’.

Entrance to the Blue Lagoon is a cool 11,500 Kr for two people. About £60! This clearly paid for the space age lockers that were in the changing rooms, which I wanted to take a photo of, but, as you have to shower naked (it’s the rules), there were too many middle-aged Germanics with their little cocks flopping about for me to warrant taking a photo in there. It was an interesting situation to find myself in. Typically British person who’d find the situation of walking around with my knob out rather embarrassing, but the stiff upper lip of ‘get on with it’ overcame the embarrassment. Before I knew it, walking from the changing room to the shower with all these naked knobbly men was a walk in the park (actually no, you’d get arrested for that sort of walk in the park but you get me right?).

The lagoon is ace, there’s no doubt about it. The temperature varies depending on where you are, but it typically averages 40°C. Which, believe me, is hot. Sometimes even uncomfortable. Even though it’s hovering around freezing outside. The water is actually blue, I kid you not. I’m guessing that’s to do with the amount of silica .

Peculiarly, the lagoon is a by-product of a power station. It’s just run off for the geo thermal power plant next door. But it’s clean, and good for you, and bloody warm! I’d definitely recommend it, but as I’ve said, it’s very, very expensive and took a big chunk out of our small budget.

After finishing up at the Blue Lagoon, we took our rock-hard, matted hair and refreshed bodies on to the Route 1 ring road, toward our destination. Not so far form Reykjavík, we stopped off at a 1011 supermarket. We bought the bare essentials like bread, pizza, cakes (huge cinnamon swirl covered in a caramel slop), Mountain Dew… yes! Iceland has the real-deal Mountain Dew (unlike our shitty energy drink). So a market of 300,000 people in comparison to the UK’s 60 million is clearly more important! The total bill? A massive 7,500 Kr (about £40) – for two bags of shopping!

We filled up at the nearest town to our destination, which was called Blönduós. At this point Chloe was behind the wheel, and very carefully exited the roundabout to the Olís petrol station, on the wrong side of the road with a car approaching.

We got to Skagaströnd, which is where we were staying. A small town of 300 people, a crazy-looking church and a weird mural of a fisherman’s wind-battered face. The log cabin was pleasant enough – small, warm. Just a microwave and hob though. So we grilled that expensive pizza and garlic bread, the latter of which became solid and inedible. Went to bed at 10pm!

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Day 38 – Homebound

The day I go back home. I cooked myself some pancakes and bacon, swimming in maple syrup – an appropriate breakfast and a good nod to this fantastic country.

I was pretty much packed, though my suitcase managed to gain two kilograms over night.

My plan for the day was to eat some delicacies I hadn’t got round to. So I had a Vera’s burger for lunch, which was immense. Then, after sitting round in the Pacific Centre for hours with my luggage (plenty to do but with a suitcase of 23Kg, it was hard to get around with), I went to the food hall to eat poutine. This is a Quebec dish which is pretty much cheesy chips in gravy. It’s cheese curds, which sounds revolting as it’s soured milk, but it was actually really nice. For my own future reference, I ate it at New York Fries in the mall, and had the pulled pork poutine.

I took the SkyTrain to the airport and it started to set in how much I’m going to miss this place. It sounds pathetic but at the airport I felt really emotional. Vancouver is comfortable, in a good way, and felt right. Mixed with going back to work, which sucks, and a town which offers little. But then, I was thinking of how much I miss Chloe and my family.

When I was in the mall having to wait for time to pass by (such an unfortunate thing to be doing in such a great city), and thinking how I really could stay here for a lot longer, someone passed by with a vest saying ‘Jus’ liv’ it”. I’m only here once, but I’m in love, and the thought of seeing my family just a couple of times a year is a tough prospect.

So at this point, I want more from Canada, and though I don’t want to give up on that thought, whilst being realistic at the same time, I’ve had an incredible journey for nearly six weeks, spread across this huge beautiful continent. I’ve done some amazing things, that some many never have the opportunity to do. But for me, some of the most simple activities were the most impressive. For example, driving for hours to Banff and seeing miles of natural beauty. Or standing in Stanley Park, as the nine o’clock gun fires, as Vancouverites are jubilant, I was taking photos of their beautiful city at night.

The flight home was full of highs and lows. I sat by the window on a full aeroplane, the two people sat next to me were asleep all the way through the nine hour flight. I was desperate for a piss and couldn’t get out for one. We flew over the coast of Greenland in the morning which was an amazing sight to behold. I had boiling coffee spilt over me by the person next to me, all over my brand new Hollister camel chinos. Flew over London in the morning and could see the newly-completed Shard so close. And then best of all I had my Chloe waiting for me at the airport – (though I couldn’t find her for ages). I was very sad and very happy, tired, relieved from a very full bladder, and covered in coffee.

Day 37 – Vancouver

Last night, we travelled to Richmond Market, which is meant to be quite a famous night market. It wasn’t too bad actually – it was full of Asian food and fake Chinese stuff. I probably spent 20 bucks on food, including a weird bun with Chinese BBQ pork, and some waffle on a stick which had a phallic appearance.

Today, being my last full day in Vancouver, I felt I should a decent look around Stanley Park. It takes around half hour to walk there, and by then I’m usually tired to go on exploring! This time I took the bus down.

The weather was beautiful, warmer than it had been yesterday. So it was a little gruelling sometimes. Stanley Park is bigger than Central Park, and nearly half the size of Richmond Park in London. I decided to walk the perimeter so it was quite a distance.

I always manage to start anti-clockwise, so I’ll pass the navy base, the cricket pavilion, and the totem poles. I approached the big suspension bridge, Lions Gate Bridge, which takes you to North Vancouver (a separate city). I crossed that to Prospect Point lookout, which lets you look over the bridge, Burrard Inlet, North Van and the Georgia Straight. Apparently there’s a lighthouse but I couldn’t bloody find it…

I wanted to get on to the sea wall on the left side of the island, which I always managed to miss. So I walked for ten minutes and realised I was heading back to where I started!

Anyway, I figured it out in the end, and walked this gorgeous trail, which follows where the Squamish First Nations were. It’s forest that meets the sea. I eventually spotted a rock stack sticking out of the sea. This is called Swash Rock, and there was an info board telling of a legend. I thought it was really nice so I’m writing the legend below:

“Long, long ago Skalsh went for a swim of purification in the waters of modern day English Bay in hopes of meeting Q’uas the Transformer. Q’uas was visiting every tribe in the world to hear, and perhaps, grant wishes to these with favours to ask. While purifying himself, Skalsh noticed a canoe approaching and swam towards it to greet the travellers.

“Those in the canoe asked Skalsh three times if he had a personal wish to be granted by Q’was. Each time, Skalsh said he only wished aid for his village. Impressed by this unselfish wish, Q’was revealed himself and transformed Skalsh into a pinnacle of rock to stand forever as an example of how all people should be.”

I completed the walk, passing the beautiful Third Beach as the sun was hanging low in the sky.

That night, I saw something amazing. Some dude, in hot pants, boots and a plume, with a real macaw on his shoulder. Randomly walking around. Only in Vancouver.

Day 35 – Vancouver

I thoroughly enjoyed today. It was raining in the morning but I was determined to do the Downtown tour. It was just me, the previous guide, a German bloke and an elderly lady from Ottawa.

Today’s tour was downtown architecture, old and new. Unbelievably, the first building was some shitty ‘modern’ 70s building that had replaced a neo-classical courts building. That kind of behaviour should be illegal! Fancy Vancouver doing something like that when their oldest buildings are no older than 150 years!

There are plenty of lovely, overwhelming neo-classical and neo-roman buildings with huge columns that I’ve walked past before and not realised were there.

The church down the road from me is a gothic revival, built late 19th Century. Apparently it was very close to being knocked down some time ago… seriously?!

It was more chilled this time around as we were talking amongst ourselves. The German chap was suddenly wearing these small, thick round frame glasses that cover just the eyeball. Very typical of a European. He mentioned the war as well, to which I said “don’t mention the war” as Basil Fawlty said, but no one seemed to get it. I then mentioned how I used to live in Plymouth and how the Germans flattened what was a beautiful city…

Anyway, after the tour, I headed out at dusk to Stanley Park to take some pics of the skyline. Something I’d been putting off out of laziness but I’m really glad I did it. I took loads of photos as the lights came on and the sun set. It’s a long walk so it quickly became night time.

What a great atmosphere there at night. At 9pm, there’s a cannon which fires a gun salute (I think it was donated by George III could be wrong though). Loud as hell – echoed through the blocks of downtown Vancouver. As it fired, a load of people cheered, proud of their city.

As I walked down the sea wall snapping away, the hairs on my neck raised reminding me how beautiful this city is. Two locals then pulled up on their mopeds, watched the city for a short while, and proclaimed it “the best place on Earth”.

As I walked back along the sea wall, I thought how lucky Vancouverites are. I walked past a couple, dangling their legs over the wall, having a bit of a cuddle. Which made me think how I’d love Chloe to be sharing this view of this incredible city with me…

Loved tonight. One of my best nights of the trip. Sometimes the simplest of moments are the most beautiful.