Credit Crunch. Economic slowdown. Financial crisis. It would not be an exaggeration to say that every British TV and print article in the last 6 months has contained one of the above phrases, or alluded to it with the classic "... in the current climate". The once-proud nation of Iceland copped an absolute spanking from the world's financial institutions and is quietly licking its wounds, probably hoping to get on board with the Euro and regain some stability. In the meantime though, their carrier Icelandair has been offering some excellent deals to entice people to their chilly, currently cashflow-challenged capital Reykjavik.
We kicked off early on Saturday morning with a Golden Circle tour with David - an expat Englishman who has been in Iceland since the mid-80's. He was a goldmine of information about the place, and all the changes that have happened since he arrived. His first point was that Iceland is about the same size as England, but their populations are 312,000 and 45 million, respectively. Take away 100,000 children and 50,000 wrinklies, and you've only got about 150,000 people to do the work and pay taxes. Yet somehow, Iceland has created a complete first-world infrastructure with roads, communications, power, schools etc.
The whole nation was basically funded by fish - but as stocks started to deplete and fishing quotas took hold, Iceland had to start looking for other things that they either had in abundance or could support with relatively little investment in people and funds. To this end they have become a world leader in harnessing geothermal power. The other thing they tried was international banking...
But enough of that stuff. The natural delights of Iceland were what we had come for, and it delivered, big-time.
This is the geyser at Geysir, which does its thing roughly every four minutes:
We lasted about 5 minutes beside the mighty waterfall at Gulfoss - the wind was blowing about -30°C right into our faces as we looked at it:
We met some lovely Icelandic Horses, all wrapped up in their thick winter coats.
That night we embarked on a less-successful tour - to hunt down the Northern Lights. After four hours of fruitless pootling along mountain roads, our Icelandic guide apologised - despite a reasonably-favourable forecast, it just wasn't going to happen for us. Damn.
We had another busy schedule the following day, kicking off with some Icelandic Horse riding! It's been illegal to import horses to Iceland for many years, so these sturdy units have been on their own evolutionary branch, developing a couple of unique "gaits" in addition to the usual walk, trot and gallop. Bec had been looking forward to this for a while, with Johnny slightly less enthused, having never actually ridden a horse before. Once we got going however, his natural speed-freak tendencies took over, and when the group divided into "slow" and "fast" there was barely any decision time required! The pace gradually increased, finishing with Kistil (Bec's horse) and Scroggi galloping over the snowy landscape. Yes, they're only small, and their little legs mean they don't go that fast, but it's still pretty fun!
To soothe the aching horsey-interfacing bits, we took a dip in the amazing Blue Lagoon - superheated water comes up through cracks in the Earth's crust, picking up all sorts of lovely minerals on its way, and fills up these pools in a lava-field, ending up at a delightful 37-40°C. You would think it was man-made, it's so perfect. But like almost everything you see in Iceland, it's just a by-product of being on the join of the American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
For our last meal in Reykjavik, we headed to a unique Icelandic Tapas restaurant that had been recommended by Yorkshire holidaymakers Andrew and Carly who had taken the Golden Circle tour with us the previous day. Behold! Puffin meat with a blueberry sauce - dark and delicious; and Minke Whale with cranberry sauce. Started out tasting like roast beef, but ended up tasting like fish - Bec was undecided, Johnny not a fan.
When it comes to Iceland however, we're unanimous - fantastic!