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Travel & Holiday

Ice beauty

Magnificent glaciers, glorious sunsets and the Northern Lights stun visitors to Iceland
The Straits Times - December 13, 2011
By: Alphonsus Chern
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Ice beauty Trekkers exploring Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in the south-east, the largest in Iceland -- ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN

The first time I came across an Icelandic name was in a Tintin comic, The Shooting Star, when Captain Haddock's ship docked at Akureyri in Eyjafjordur to refuel.

I was then in primary school and Tintin comics were a staple read for literature classes - under the table, of course.

Years later, I came across Reykjavik and Faxafloi in Nevil Shute's An Old Captivity, which tells of a 1930s seaplane expedition from England to Greenland, a challenging journey in those days. Strange names for strange places that I had to see for myself, I thought.

Today, visiting Iceland is a relatively simple affair: Book the plane tickets online and show up on time for the flight.

The idea lay dormant until I went to London for my honeymoon in September. With a skydiving trip in the Netherlands cancelled because the season was closed, we had eight days on hand.

'Let's go to Iceland,' I said to my wife on a whim. We booked ourselves on a three-hour flight from Heathrow to Keflavik and arrived on a rainy night with nowhere to stay.

Huddling over breakfast at the nearest motel the next morning, we decided that the best way to see a little of everything would be to drive Route 1, a two- lane, 1,339km road which circles the island.

We spent a day exploring the capital, Reykjavik, with its eclectic shops, gaily coloured roofs and dramatic Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran parish church with its formidable facade housing an impressive four-manual German pipe organ.

It was not until we left the city, however, that the full beauty of Iceland revealed itself. We watched, entranced, as the spectacular landscape unfolded with each passing kilometre. Endless vistas of postcard pictures presented themselves at the crest of each hill and around each bend.

Along the way, we noticed blue signs by the roadside printed with the icon of a camera. We duly pulled over by the side of the road to record the scenery.

'How considerate of them,' I thought, 'to show tourists the best spots to take photographs.' It was only at the end of our journey that we realised these were speed-trap warnings.

We made little progress in the day, as the light grew more beautiful towards evening and we made longer and longer stops to watch sunsets that lasted several hours. After dark, however, we ate up the kilometres as there was nothing to see.

It helped that everyone we met spoke English, the road signs were easy to spot and there was always an available bed and breakfast room in the next town because we were touring during the off-peak season, which begins in late September and lasts till March. Some of the smaller northern towns were so deserted that we were frequently the only visitors.

Having just come from a very busy London, what impressed us most deeply was the great stillness and vast space of rural Iceland.

With a population density of just three persons for every square kilometre and with most of the people concentrated in the south-west, we often found ourselves completely alone.

Frequently, the only thing we could hear was the distant whistling of the wind as it swept down the mountains and over the Atlantic, but when nature chose to be still, the silence was complete.

Standing at the edge of a glacier on one such day, we strained our ears to hear something, anything. Nothing prepared us for the hollow crack and eerie groan as the river of ancient ice surged another millimetre forward.

Another inescapable fact of Iceland is the unpredictability of the weather 'that changes every 10 minutes', an innkeeper told us quite seriously one morning.

On the night we landed, a gusting wind welcomed us by blowing us through the doors back into the airport.

A shower of small hailstones chased us along the west coast as we drove around the Snaefellsnes peninsula, roundly pelting our faces every time we got out of the car to take photographs.

Torrential rain in the north while passing through Akureyri, a large town also known as the capital of north Iceland, slowed us down somewhat, but also gave birth to rainbows and even double rainbows that rose out of one house to land on another.

Driving across the north-east after visiting the Dettifoss, one of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe, a few fluttering flakes soon turned into a snowstorm which plastered over road signs, obscured the horizon and left a layer almost 8cm thick on the road in less than an hour.

A howling wind followed us southwards the next day as we drove from Egilsstadir, the largest town in east Iceland, to Hofn, a fishing town in the south-east, veering our car across the lanes without warning.

Traffic on the two-lane highway was sparse, but at nearly 90kmh, I gripped the wheel so tightly my back ached for some time afterwards.

The wind died when we arrived at the Hali guesthouse near the foot of the immense Vatnajokull - the largest glacier in Europe.

The sky was completely clear for the first time on this trip, which meant a good chance that the Northern Lights, which are most often seen in the clear and dark Arctic skies between September and March, would make an appearance.

That night, we stared up into the black void of space and saw, among the numerous winking stars, the pinpoint of a satellite silently making its way overhead.

Then, the luminous red and green of the aurora borealis appeared and we stood transfixed in the freezing night as the glow swirled and danced above the silhouette of snow-capped mountains, punctuated by the flare of an occasional meteor.

On our last day, we crossed the Skeidararsandur without incident. This immense plain of glacial sediments is known for its violent sandstorms which can blast the paint off cars. Fortunately, the wind had spent itself the day before.

We skirted the now famous Eyjafjallajokull volcano in the south and made a home run for the Keflavik airport where we returned the car intact and in time.

Having done well over 2,000km, our little Toyota Auris was caked with volcanic sand inside and out, the panels underneath a little worn from bouncing over kilometres of potholes and gravel.

We were mentally tired and physically aching from the hours on the road dealing with both stray sheep and swirling snow, but fresh in our minds were the endless vistas of fjords, glaciers and fields, breathtaking in all their unspoilt glory.

WHERE TO STAY

Bed and breakfasts are available in most towns along Route 1. Prices include breakfast and cost between 6,000ISK (S$65) for a motel room in Keflavik in the south-west and 15,000ISK for a room at the three-star Icelandair hotel, in Egilsstadir, east Iceland.

WHAT TO EAT

Almost every major town has a petrol station with an accompanying restaurant which serves fresh grilled meat such as lamb and fish (Arctic char and haddock, among others). Expect to pay between $50 and $80 for two dining in.

For the gastronomically adventurous, there is traditional Icelandic fare such as putrid shark and boiled sheep's head.

HOW TO GET AROUND

The only way to sightsee on a flexible schedule is to drive. Car rental companies such as Hertz and Atak have a selection from small hatchbacks ($500 a week) to 4x4 jeeps ($1,500 a week). Comprehensive insurance is not included. Diesel is expensive, at about $2.63 a litre. We travelled 2,235km in eight days and used just more than $300 worth of fuel.

5 things to do

1 Go in winter if you want the best chance of seeing the aurora borealis or Northern Lights. For perfect viewing, the night must be moonless and cloudless, and the venue away from traffic and city lights. Wear warm clothing.

2 Wear waterproof clothing and sturdy shoes when hiking away from habitation. The weather can go from sunny to rain and snow in a matter of minutes.

3 Take along food and drinks. Towns can be few and far in between, and not all are open to tourists during the off-peak season.

4 Make sure that your vehicle is fitted with the appropriate tyres for the season. Roads in winter can be very slippery and dangerous. Have a spare tyre and jack in the car.

5 If you want to go off-road and into the interior of Iceland where the best scenery is, rent a 4x4 vehicle. Remember to buy comprehensive car insurance.

2 don'ts

1 Don't take photographs while driving. There are many pit stops along the way for this purpose.

2 Don't exceed the speed limit, which varies from 50kmh within the city to 90kmh on paved highways. Hazards abound with blind rises, icy surfaces and sheep in the middle of the lane. There are many speed traps along the way.

GETTING THERE

British Airways flies from Singapore to London Heathrow direct. Then take a three-hour direct flight on Icelandair from Heathrow to Keflavik.

 

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