By David Jackson
Holiday time approached. Due to time constraints on both our parts, May seemed like the best time to escape as a family for some much needed R&R.
Bearing in mind my partner is a desert girl who complains when the temperature drops below 19ºC, and three year-old Baby refuses to go outside in the wind, where would be the best place to take them?
The Arctic circle, of course! To be specific, just below it – Iceland.
Now, when I booked the flights I assumed May would be a good time. Just after the start of the Icelandic summer (they amusingly don’t do spring or autumn there), and I admit I went on my theory of May being the only time to visit Scotland, which is much the same sort of place, right? I couldn’t ask an Icelander, none live in Almería and there are only 85 of them across Andalucía, according to INE, the government stats office.
Optimistically I assumed we’d be having long days of northern sun, with spring flowers bursting into life as the rivers carried away the melting mountain snow.
And actually, we did.
Flying to Iceland from Spain is quite easy, which is why I decided not to do it. You can fly from Alicante, Barcelona or Madrid but it’s a midnight flight and you land at four in the morning. What do you do with a toddler in Reykjavik at four in the morning after a long flight?
So we went Almería – Gatwick – Reykjavik. It actually cost almost the same, and the flight times are quite decent. We just had to hang around for a few hours in Gatwick, but the very polite and free Gatwick Connect service took our luggage off us as soon as we landed and ensured it was pilfered and lost as efficiently as possible. No, I joke. I handed the suitcases over in the baggage reclaim of Gatwick and they reappeared in Reykjavik in pristine condition, albeit slightly wet.
We landed at around midnight, in 80 kph winds and sleet. Iceland was putting on its best show for us. As we staggered across an empty parking lot to the hotel, I must admit to wondering where on earth I’d come to. Iceland wasn’t worried – the met office had only issued an “advisory” for high winds. The weather soon changed and we had nothing but blue skies and windless days, in those stunning early summers only the north Atlantic can provide.
The next morning, over a very decent breakfast, I had my first taste of Skyr and pickled herring from the buffet. I picked suspiciously at the herring and asked a waiter what it was. “I am not able to describe it, I suggest you try it” he said with a sinister smile. I did, while the waiting staff peered through the kitchen hatch sniggering. It wasn’t that bad, if you like very vinegary fish soaked in sugar. Skyr, which is a cheese pretending to be a yoghurt, is fantastic and I continue to suffer withdrawal symptoms as I type this. The GF has banned me from trying to make some at home, despite me smuggling a pot with me for this purpose.
I picked up the rental car, and received a lecture on not opening the door against the wind, as it will either snap off, or snap back and break my arm. Tip: Hertz is cheaper but has terrible cars. Europcar is more expensive with better cars. Neither care about little scratches or dents, and for the price they charge I’m not surprised.
Iceland is eye-wateringly expensive – but high quality. About €10 for a tercio of local beer, which is excellent. You get free water and coffee (American) everywhere. Few things depress me more than paying €30 for Baby’s lunch only for him to reject it, before getting off his chair and eating a chip that has fallen from the next table.
On the plus side, the food was excellent. We flew to the north-western tip, just off Greenland, to the West Fjords. There we ate in a Viking longhouse on long tables with a fish buffet. Every head teacher in the province was there at an end of year dinner. They sang, they drank, and we were merry. Even Baby sang along, to much applause.
We were woken one night by students dressed as TellyTubbies blowing horns at 4am. One was on a sit-on lawnmower. They wended their way through the town in the midnight sun in one of the most surreal experience I have ever had. Turns out it was an end of year tradition, in which students go and wake up their old teachers. These kids had a long day of it – we saw them struggling back home at 10am the next day!
It is perhaps a truism to say that anywhere you go in the world, you’ll find a Brit saving animals. And there, in a tiny village some 200km from Greenland, I found an Englishman who saves animals.
I met up with Stephen Midgley (Midge), who manages the Arctic Fox centre. This Wiltshire lad is married to an Icelandic girl, speaks good Icelandic (not an easy language) and took up the position at this community based research project several years ago along with his young family. A man who knows a lot about foxes. The centre was set-up by the local community to encourage tourism and interaction with the local environment. Spain could learn a lot from other countries about tourism.
Arctic foxes aren’t endangered, but aren’t much seen. I didn’t realise how small they were. The centre has two in a pen -called Ingi and Mori- who kept Baby entertained for quite a while. They nipped him once, but I think he bit them twice, so we came out ahead.
What can I say about Iceland? It was fantastic. The weather was, for the main, stunning. The apartments we mostly stayed in were larger and cheaper than hotel rooms. The landscapes are like something out of Hollywood. The people are friendly, kind and speak excellent English, albeit with an American accent. Living standards are some of the best in the world. The tap water is better than any bottled water you will find in Spain.
Imagine sitting at the foot of a volcano on a lava plane with a not a single plant in sight, next to a raging torrent, eating a picnic. Underneath a government sign warning you that if you receive a text message to evacuate, you may have fewer than five minutes before the volcanic gases get you. That’s Iceland.
Everywhere you go there are fantastic hot water baths to keep the cold out. Baby was welcome everywhere, and made the most of his holiday. He loved the whales (we saw orcas!), the planes, the hot water, the geysers, even the shopping where in exchange for being a Good Boy he might get a lollipop from the shop owner.
Yes, Iceland is trying to kill you, even if you’re a casual tourist. A single misstep next to a geyser, a sudden change in the weather during your walk, getting too close to the breakers on the beach and you’re a goner. But the Icelanders do warn you about this when you arrive, before sitting patiently back and waiting for you to get into trouble.
It doesn’t matter whether you want extreme adventures, sea fishing, relaxation or just a different sort of adventure trip with a small child. Just save up your pennies, and go.