Ultima Thule: “beyond the borders of the known world”
Pining for the fjords, thoughts of a summer in Iceland send my Nordic heart a-viking…
This summer we celebrate my partner R.’s 50th birthday by traveling north north north, almost to the Arctic Circle, to Iceland – land of fire and ice. We’ll spend a week with camera and notebook exploring Iceland’s insomniac landscapes under a midnight sun. If I can stay awake: there’s a nine-hour time difference between Tokyo and Reykjavik.
R. and I first visited a couple of years ago in spring, a trip that was one part intervention into the ever-widening gyre of our stressed, workaholic lives in Tokyo, and one part mad dash to catch the aurora during the vernal equinox (R. got pics; I slept through it).
We couldn’t get enough of Iceland’s austere, astringent beauty: the glassy fjords, active volcanoes, creeping glaciers, and haunted wastelands. We vowed a return trip, as we do every time we spend a few days in a place that needs a lifetime to explore (which is every place…)
And this time, we mean it. With a little out-of-the-box thinking, I re-routed my annual migration route from Tokyo to Toronto to include stopovers both ways in Reykjavik, coming and going.
On the first leg, I’ll have a few days alone to get over jet lag and explore Reykjavik. I look forward to some time just to wander the small city with a camera.
On the stopover on the return flight to Tokyo I’ll meet R. for a week of independent car touring in the west and north.
So, on a weekend in late January we put on some appropriate Icelandic music (“Little Talks,” Of Monsters and Men) and start to plan… and quickly discover that, if anything, Iceland is almost too much on the tourist map these days. A half-year out, and already we find ourselves scrambling after quickly filling flights and hotel rooms.
Seats on flights from Tokyo to Reykjavik via Copenhagen on SAS and Icelandair were no problem, but it’s a different story from Reykjavik to Toronto. I just barely managed to get on board the flight I wanted. And what started as a casual browse for accommodations turned into a panic attack when room availability in Vik, one of the towns we wanted to use as a base to explore the south, was already nul. Even big-city Reykjavik (population about 119,000) is already more than a third full: 38% in June, when I first arrive; 44% in July, on the return flight to Tokyo.
Then, as we continue to research, we realize that maybe we shouldn’t rely exclusively on one travel site such as Booking.com: yes, the room rates might be lower than if we contact places directly, and it’s helpful to see what availability is like in real time, but the travel site seems to fill up faster than the hotels themselves. After an initial panic-driven flurry of reservations to make sure we’d have somewhere to stay in high-season July, we check at the source several listings which previously seemed off-limits… and manage to upgrade several of the small rooms with shared baths we’d been consigned to, to larger rooms with private baths.
Lesson learned: don’t get lazy and rely on the convenience of a single travel site: shop around.
So after a few weeks of intense planning, booking, and booking again, we’ve got our itinerary for a weeklong (10 days, in my case) trip to Iceland in June and July:
I will arrive in Reykjavik the third week in June and spend a few days solo in the city. I don’t have a definite plan at this point, other than to walk around town with my camera – hopefully to catch some of the sites, such as the volcano-inspired Hallgrímskirkja church and harbour-side Sun Voyager sculpture illuminated in polar “white night” 24-hour sunlight. Then again, the last time I was in Iceland I managed to sleep through the aurora lightshow, so I don’t know how much I’ll get to see of the midnight sun…
A few weeks later, mid-July, I’ll return to Reykjavik from Toronto (about a six hour flight) and meet R’s flight from Tokyo. Then we’ll rent a car – two-wheel drive, not four – to explore.
One of the best things about travel is the anticipation, the planning of the trip. Because we toured Iceland on that aurora-hunting expedition a few years ago, mostly around the “Golden Circle” route in southwest Iceland, this trip we’re gonna stretch things out a bit and hit some specific destinations which have been on our list:
Landmannalaugar for day hikes through colourful rhyolite mountains and lava fields.
“Diamond Circle:” the town of Akureyri near the Arctic Circle; geologically active Lake Myvatn; and the powerful Dettifoss waterfall
The fjords of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, including the town of Gundarfjordor and Kirkjufell mountain
A half day in Reykjavik for shopping
A road trip south, including Seljelandsfoss, Black Sand Beach and the town of Vik, Svartifoss and Vatnajökull National Park; Jokulsarlon lagoon; the Glacier Kayak Adventure at Heinaberg Lagoon
The double rainbow – if we’re lucky – of Skogafoss waterfall, near the south coast
And as a send-off, before a 15-hour return flight to Tokyo, we’ll indulge in the silica mud baths of the Blue Lagoon.
That’s the plan so far, and travel to Iceland being as popular as it is, we’ve already had to make reservations for all nights’ accommodations and most activities, though we can probably hold off on booking a time at the Blue Lagoon until we’re in-country.
So in the meantime, there’s a lot of great Icelandic music to listen to (see links to a couple of current faves, below), as well as some reading up to do…
More to come!
Of Monsters and Men:
Samaris, Ég Vildi Fegin Verda
Plus, of course, anything by Sigur Ros, especially Valtari Mystery Film Experiment…)