Review of our three-night short break at Hotel Fron, Reykjavik, Iceland in February 2015.
A nightmare start at a heaving Luton Airport at 6am on a Sunday – long queues at Security, hardly anywhere to sit down. The airport is clearly stretched beyond its capacity – and yet they want to double passenger numbers over the next few years!
Then a smooth, comfortable, three-hour Easyjet A320 flight to Reykjavik-Keflavik airport, where we landed in a blizzard, with snow drifting over the runway, driven by the near gale-force wind.
We knew it was going to be cold in February in Iceland (the clue's in the name, after all), but, while dashing from the terminal to our coach, the cold and wind still stung our faces and took our breath away. We then travelled through a white-out snowstorm to Hotel Fron in the centre of Reykjavik, an hour away.
On our return journey three days later, we were once again in a blizzard, but the Icelanders just get on with it – we saw three snowploughs clearing the road on our 60 minute journey from our hotel back to Keflavik, and counted nine snowploughs clearing the runway for our plane to land. Then another smooth, quiet, comfortable Easyjet A320 flight home, helped by a massive tailwind which cut the journey by half an hour.
NB: alcohol in the duty-free shop at Keflavik is very reasonable in price – a litre of weapons-grade 47% ABV Gordons gin was about £15. Even better, the Duty free shop is available going into Iceland as well.
Hotel Fron is situated in the centre of Reykjavik, on one of the main shopping streets, Laugavegur. There are plenty of bars and restaurants within a few hundred metres walk of the hotel, as well as a small ‘Bonus’ supermarket. The ‘downtown’ area, with the Parliament building, the Tjörnin lake, tourist information offices, the harbour and more bars and restaurants is just a few hundred metres further. The hotel has its own good, basic restaurant downstairs – we had continental breakfast there every day and dined there a couple of times, too.
Incidentally, we found that prices in Iceland for pretty much anything are much higher than the UK. Eating out anywhere is an expensive business. For example, one evening we had delicious oven-baked cod, with winter vegetables, a bit of side-salad, and chips, washed down with half a litre (just less than a pint) of the local 'Viking' draught beer, no starters, sweets or coffees, at a cost of £26 per head.
Our room was on the fifth floor, accessed by a lift and a flight of stairs, and overlooked Laugavegur, and on over rusty corrugated iron roofs to the sea and snow-covered mountains beyond. The room was modern, warm and comfortable, and contained a double bed, bedside tables (one with a minibar under), a couple of chairs, a large desk with shelving underneath, a TV (which didn’t work), and a good-sized wardrobe, with shelves, a hanging area, a suitcase storage area, and a room safe, which worryingly occasionally refused to open for no apparent reason.
The modern bathroom had a loo, washbasin, shower, heated towel rail, and a hair-dryer. There was no extractor fan in the bathroom, so we usually opened a window after showering to let the fug clear.
We would definitely recommend Hotel Fron as a base to explore Reykjavik and the surrounding countryside.
Reykjavik isn’t a particularly attractive capital city – there are very few old buildings in Iceland, the most historic ones are barely a couple of hundred years old. There are a few examples of modern architecture – for example the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral, and the huge Perlan glass dome, but otherwise it’s fairly bland. Its main advantage is that the central part is small, and easily explored on foot, as long as you wrap up warm.
The Tjörnin lake in the centre of the downtown area is worth a visit. The modern Parliament building sits at the northern end of the lake, which was frozen over when we visited – we saw people walking across it, and even watched one man cycling across the ice. The authorities pump geothermally-heated water into one end of the lake to keep a small area ice-free for the birds, and there were scores of Whooper swans, Greylag geese and mallards taking advantage of it, and of the titbits fed to them by passing pedestrians. In the basement of the Parliament building is a huge scale model of Iceland, which clearly shows how the underlying geological forces have shaped the island.
Gray Line Tours looked after all our transport, both airport transfers and sightseeing excursions – they have a fleet of minibuses to collect you from your hotel and deliver you to their coach park in the centre of Reykjavik. The coaches are warm and reasonably comfortable.
We went on two excursions: The Golden Circle and the Northern Lights tours.
This is the classic coach tour from the capital round in a big circle towards the centre of the island, with varying contents, but always including the Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the Strokkur and Geysir geysers. We went on the all-day version, but there is a shorter, half-day one as well. Our extended version also visited the Skalholt church (the ancient seat of the Icelandic bishops), and the Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Station. Our guide kept up a continuous stream of facts, anecdotes, advice and jokes in near-perfect English, and thoroughly deserved a good tip at the end of the day.
This is a site of historical, cultural, and geological importance to Icelanders, who established the world’s oldest parliament there in AD 930, where it stayed until transferring to Reykjavik a couple of hundred years ago. The spectacular valley is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and are being torn apart by a couple of centimetres a year, leading to frequent earthquakes and long cracks in the surface. There’s also a huge lake overlooked by a visitor centre.
A massive wide waterfall thunders over two drops 11m and 21 m in height. It was bitterly cold, with a near gale-force wind descending from the nearby glacier, battering us, stinging our faces with spray, and making it difficult to stay upright on the ice-covered viewing area. Wrap up warm! There’s a visitor centre here, too, with a wildly expensive souvenir shop and café.
The Geysir geyser, after which all geysers are named, was the tallest geyser known until the discovery of Old Faithful and others in Yosemite. Geysir is temperamental and no longer blows regularly, stopping and starting after small earthquakes. We watched the nearby Strokkur geyser blow - it erupts reliably every 5–8 minutes, allegedly to a height of some 30 metres, but it didn’t look that high to us. There’s a nearby visitor centre and shop.
Energy and hot water are cheap in Iceland as a result of the volcanic nature of the rocks under the surface. This power station (one of many in Iceland) is sited on a volcano which erupts roughly every 5000 years (the last time 2000 years ago). They’ve drilled down 2-3 km and tap off the high-pressure, superheated water and steam which pours out of the well. The steam is used to generate electricity, and the hot water is piped 20 miles to Reykjavik and used to heat 99.9% of the houses there. The waste water from radiators in houses is then piped into drains which run just beneath the surface of driveways, pavements and roads, helping to keep them ice-free in winter. All without using any fossil fuel! There’s an exhibition centre with presentations about geothermal energy in Iceland.
We thought we’d never get to see the Northern Lights, since the weather was vile for most of our stay, with thick overcast, sub-zero temperatures, strong winds, and frequent snowstorms. The tour was cancelled twice by Gray Line because of this, but unexpectedly, on our final day in the middle of another snowstorm, we were told that the tour was on that evening. We were mightily sceptical as we drove on the coach to the Reykjanes peninsula near Keflavik though driving snow, but Gray Line were right – as we neared the fishing town of Garður at the tip of the peninsula at 9pm the clouds thinned and finally disappeared, revealing the stars. And, just as important, the wind died down to a gentle breeze.
It wasn’t a perfect viewing area: there was a lighthouse on the open area behind the sea wall, and much light pollution from this and the nearby street lights, and, as the only spot in Iceland with clear visibility, it was crowded, with thirty coaches and many hundreds of eager aurora-seekers wandering about. There was a ridiculously expensive café, who were charging £7.50 for a slice of cake, and £1.08 to use their loo.
However, I quickly set up my camera and tripod, found an open area, and waited for something to happen. Soon somebody shouted that the Lights were starting – I found that, though invisible to the naked eye, they showed up faintly in a red and green curtain on a 30 second time exposure at ISO 800 at f3.5 - max aperture on my 18-200mm zoom lens.
The Lights soon brightened up, revealing a pale white band to the naked eye, like the Milky Way, stretching overhead from the eastern to western horizons. The aurora brightened further, taking on a strong greeny-yellow colour. I shortened exposure time to 20 seconds, and just kept snapping away. Initially the display seemed quite static, but later you could clearly see the curtains of light drifting slowly from right to left, and the shapes and detail in the curtains writhing and changing noticeably. I halved the shutter time and doubled the ISO level.
We were so lucky – the display was bright, multi-coloured, and lasted for a couple of hours. I took picture after breath-taking picture until after an hour and a half, the display seemed to be fading a touch, and I was starting to get cold in the strengthening breeze. We walked back to the coach, which left the viewing area at about 11:15pm, getting us back to our hotel at about 00:15 am.
We then had to pack our suitcases over a celebratory glass or two of wine, getting to bed at about 2am, ready for the alarm call at 6am, a shower and breakfast before an 8am pick-up for the airport, shattered but happy. Definitely a bucket-list item ticked off.
Each page contains about ten pictures totalling approx four MB.
If we hadn’t seen the Northern Lights, this would have been a disastrous holiday, a bit of a waste of time and money. Ok, the Golden Circle tour was interesting, but it would have been a very long way to come just for that.
However, the magnificent aurora display, squeezed in unexpectedly at the last moment, made it all worthwhile. If you come on a trip like this, you must realise it’s a gamble if you’ll see a good display – you could go home aurora-less and disappointed.
Hotel Fron was a comfortable, basic hotel in the centre of Reykjavik, and a good base for exploring.
Reykjavik itself is not a capital city with much historic architecture and scenic attractions. Iceland, in February, is desolate, snow-covered and cold. The landscape is rough, rugged, volcanic, open and empty. Some of the views of vast snow-covered plains and mountains, ice-covered lakes and rivers are magnificent. The Golden Circle tour was interesting and entertaining.
Would we go again? Um - once is probably enough…