juliamhammond

Julia's Travels

Over the last 25 years, I've visited over a hundred countries and learned a lot about saving money without scrimping on the travel experience. If you're looking to broaden your horizons and make your travel budget stretch further, then Julia's Travels is for you. To find out more about my work as a freelance travel writer, please visit www.juliahammond.co.uk.

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On the trail of Fire Saga in Húsavík

One of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time is Eurovision Song Contest: the story of Fire Saga. Most of the Icelandic scenes were filmed in October 2019 in Húsavík, in the north of Iceland. While I’m not usually a fan of Will Ferrell, who plays Lars Erickssong in the movie, I do share his love for the insanity of Eurovision. So too, apparently, do Icelanders – according to Visit Húsavík, over 98% of them tune in when the contest is broadcast each May. When I had the opportunity to visit Húsavík this summer, I decided to check out some of the places featured in the movie.

The whales

Húsavík is well known in Iceland as a whale watching village and it’s no surprise that the cetaceans feature in scenes from the movie. Tours depart regularly and head out into Skjálfandi Bay where it’s common to see humpback, minke, white-beaked dolphin, harbour porpoise and blue whales. Occasionally it’s possible to see them from land (try GeoSea) but as Erick Erickssong (Lars’ father) is a fisherman, if you’re really going to experience Húsavík as portrayed in the movie you should get out on a boat.

Lars’ family home

The distinctive two-storey home is easy to find as it sits right near the harbour on the main drag. It’s located on the corner of Héðinsbraut and Hafnarvegur. Built in 1903, it is a wooden structure painted a rather lovely shade of blue. A residential property in real life, the apartment that covers the top two floors of the house was recently put up for sale for 24.5 million ISK, about £140000. Bargain!

Captain’s Galley bar

Named “Skipstjórakráin” in Icelandic, disappointingly, this bar isn’t a real pub. Instead, it’s the home of the Húsavík Academic Center (HAC). The signage was removed for the purposes of filming so the building could be used for the exterior shots. It’s another centrally located building, close to the harbour; the shape and recognisable gables make it simple to identify. But like many things on the big screen, things aren’t exactly what they seem – according to IMDB, the interior scenes were filmed back in the UK at Chobham Rugby Club.

Húsavíkurkirkja

This iconic wooden church was built in 1907 and overlooks the harbour in the centre of Húsavík. In the film, Lars rings the church bell to announce that he and singing partner Sigrit have been chosen as the Icelandic entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s a pretty church and well worth a quick nose inside.

The bus stop

The bus shelter where Lars and Sigrit wait for their ride to Reykjavik isn’t a bus stop at all – it actually sits beside the astro turf pitch belonging to Völsungur’s football team. Hinrik Wöhlers, director of the Húsavík Chamber of Commerce and Tourism was reportedly keen on shifting one of the two shelters to the harbourside location seen in the film. When I visited in August 2020 they were both still at the football ground.

The elf houses

Though it’s common to see elf houses in Iceland, these particular ones were a prop installed specifically for the movie. However, the Cape Hotel were keen to tap into the interest created by the film and faithfully recreated this tiny residential street in the hotel garden. As well they opened a pop-up Ja Ja Ding Dong bar; it’s outside so it’s likely to remain a summer attraction only. I spoke to the manager and asked him whether he was a fan of Eurovision himself. “I am now,” he said with a grin.

The village of Húsavík is one of the prettiest in the country so even if you’re not a Eurovision fan you should really add this to your Iceland itinerary. It’s a great base from which to drive the Diamond Circle route which features Dettifoss waterfall, Ásbyrgi Canyon and Lake Mývatn. But if you do love to watch Eurovision, then find your way to this petition which calls for Swede Molly Sandén aka My Marianne to perform Húsavík (My Hometown) at the contest in 2021:

https://www.thepetitionsite.com/626/164/246/get-husavik-my-hometown-performed-at-eurovision-2021/

Iceland’s thermal baths

Despite the country’s capricious weather, a visit to one of Iceland’s thermal baths is a must, whether you’re a first-timer or on a return visit. There are numerous hot springs and thermal baths dotted around the country, some little more than a hollow in a totally natural settting. In this post, I compare three of the biggest. All offer lockers, smart changing rooms, swim up pool bars and something akin to a spa experience. So how do they stack up?

The Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon by Chris Lawton via Unsplash

First-time visitors, consider this a must. Located close to Keflavik Airport, it offers the chance to tick off a quintessentially Icelandic experience before you’ve even checked in to your hotel. Located in the middle of a lava field on the wild Reykjanes peninsula, nature is raw and rugged here, but dip a toe in and the water is warm and soothing. White silica-rich mud makes an enriching face mask and also reflects light to give the water its beautiful blue colour. It’s gorgeous, with plenty of tucked away spots to create a sense of privacy even when the place is crowded. On site, there’s a fancy spa, restaurant and eye-wateringly expensive accommodation. Book well in advance for your session in the baths, particularly if you want to visit before or after your flight. 

The lava field surrounding the Blue Lagoon

Would I go back?

Definitely yes. It’s touristy, of course, but there is something rather special about the place.

https://www.bluelagoon.com/

Mývatn Nature Baths

The nature baths with the lake in the background

The north of Iceland sees far less traffic than the south. Like the Blue Lagoon, Mývatn Nature Baths water source is linked to a power supplier, this time the National Power Company´s bore hole in Bjarnarflag. The water in the baths has a temperature of between 36 and 40°C and also has a high mineral content. The pool is basically split into two sections, with one slightly cooler than the other – I found the hotter part to be more comfortable. Both overlook the lake itself and the midges which plague the area in summer were absent from the pool itself which was a relief. 

Mývatn Nature Baths

Would I go back?

Probably not. It’s pleasant enough but didn’t have the wow factor.

https://myvatnnaturebaths.is/ 

GeoSea

GeoSea and the bay beyond

Opened in August 2018, GeoSea uses a mix of geothermal heat and seawater pumped from two nearby drillholes to maintain a temperature of 38 to 39°C. Intimate and architecturally sympathetic to its surroundings, it sits on a cliff right on Skjálfandi Bay, meaning that if you are really lucky you might catch sight of the whales that occasionally come right into the bay. The carefully thought out design means that the pool water and that of the bay itself create the illusion of an infinity pool. As it is west facing, it’s perfect for those rare, clear days when you can watch the Icelandic sun set. In the winter, stay after dark and you might also catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. If your visit coincides with an evening such as those, you are in for a real treat.

GeoSea at sunset

Would I go back?

Absolutely. This is surely one of the best views in the whole country.

https://www.geosea.is/

Travel to Iceland during the pandemic

The changing rules

The Icelandic government has acted quickly and effectively throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Regulations have changed fast to address changes in the infection rate and if you’re planning a holiday, you need to do so on a flexible basis to adapt your trip to those varying parameters.

 

When I booked my flights I planned to visit Iceland in September; I’d already had to switch my flights from Gatwick to Luton after easyJet altered their schedules. In June, when I made those arrangements, it was on the understanding that I would need to either quarantine for 14 days or take a single COVID test on arrival and then, so long as my result was negative, continue with my holiday. The test was originally quite expensive but was later reduced to about £50. In the grand scheme of things that wasn’t excessive.

At the end of July, the rules were changed. A second test 4-6 days later would now be required at no extra charge. While testing in the capital was easy to arrange, my itinerary placed me on the other side of the country. The regional health care centres that had been set up had shorter hours and as a consequence, I would need to be a little more flexible. Adding an extra level of inconvenience was the fact that I was due to fly out on a Monday which meant if I couldn’t arrange a test on Day 4, I’d have no way of being tested on day 5 or 6 as weekend appointments weren’t available.

 

Compulsory quarantine

Then late on Friday August 14th came the announcement that from August 19th, all arriving passengers would be given the choice of either a 14 day quarantine or taking a COVID test, quarantining for 5 days and then taking a second test. At the time it was unclear just what the restrictions on movement for those five days would look like. By the time the government website was likely to be updated, I’d probably be stuck with it, or be forced to cancel.

I decided to bring my trip forward to depart in mid-August instead of September and thus avoid the need to quarantine. A few hours on the computer that weekend and a slightly condensed itinerary (to reduce the amount of time in Reykjavik) left me with a ten day trip during which I could pretty much cover the same ground as before.

 

What was the testing process like?

Passengers on our early morning easyJet flight were invited to disembark row by row. Instead of the usual jockeying for position, this staggered approach meant that there was no queuing in the terminal building. Each person, continuing to wear the mask they had worn during the flight, was called in turn to one of a bank of cubicles for their test.

I was invited to sit and to remove my mask for the test to be administered. The throat swab was done first and was relatively comfortable. The second, a swab to the top of the nose, was more intrusive and made my eyes water. But like the vaccinations for tropical diseases I’ve had in the past, such medical procedures are just part and parcel of travel.

 

Awaiting the result

In all I was off the plane and out to the rental car centre in well under an hour. The rental was ready and with paperwork filled in and a socially distanced handover, I was soon on my way. I’d made the decision to avoid Reykjavik this time. Though the number of coronavirus cases in Iceland has been very small, the majority have, not unsurprisingly, been in the capital region. Instead, I headed east. It was within the regulations to stop at a supermarket, though visitors at that time were asked to keep clear of restaurants and other busy places until their test result came through. In most respects my holiday continued as normal and I was free to book tours.

 

I drove on for a socially distanced hike at Seljalandsfoss waterfall. I’d been there on my wedding day in 2014 but it wasn’t practical to visit the almost concealed falls nearby. This site would usually be busy in August as it is one of the few waterfalls you can walk behind. However, this year numbers have been considerably lower. My negative test result came through by text around 4 hours after I had been tested, which was a relief. Despite having no symptoms and being cautious at home, there was still that tiny chance of being asymptomatic.

The problematic second test

Four days into my trip I’d reached the tiny village of Borgarfjörður Eystri down a gravel road and over a mountain pass in the East Fjords. The nearest test centre was at Egilsstaðir, in a temporary structure beside the main supermarket, but as I’d planned to stay the next night in Seyðisfjörður, another village in the same region, that wasn’t a big deal. The test centre was open mornings only, so I could call in and get tested, spend part of the day hiking in Stuðlagil canyon and then head out to Seyðisfjörður by mid-afternoon.

 

There was just one small spanner in the works: the Icelandic authorities suggested it wasn’t possible to take the second test until you had received an official barcode. This would come through late afternoon. By that time, the Egilsstaðir centre would be closed and by the time the next closest testing centre opened, it would be Monday afternoon. By then, I would be somewhere on the road beyond the centre in Akureyri and the remote West Fjords region.

A face to face solution

I decided the best thing to do would be to go to Egilsstaðir anyway and discuss it with them face to face. By then, four days and one hour had elapsed since my first test at Keflavik. At first, I was told it wasn’t possible to test without a barcode. When I explained that the following Wednesday (day 9) would be the next time I’d be close enough to a test centre to avoid a 6 hour round trip drive, they had a look on the computer to see if the system would allow a test to be registered. Fortunately, it could and I was identified via my passport number rather than the missing barcode. Incidentally that barcode eventually came through about 5pm.

 

Holidaying almost as normal

Mostly I’d chosen ensuite hotel rooms for this trip, whereas in normal circumstances I’d have probably opted for guesthouses with shared bathrooms to save money. I decided I would feel more comfortable being the only person to use the shower and toilet facilities and considered the extra cost worth the additional peace of mind.

Different hotels operated slightly different policies for breakfasts; in many cases the breakfast buffet was still put out, but with separate sittings and fewer tables to spread guests as far as possible. Masks were not necessary in public areas, but the use of hand sanitiser and sometimes also gloves was encouraged. I chose to eat picnic lunches most of the time, though the lobster rolls from the van at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon were too tempting to pass up.

 

The sunny and surprisingly warm weather meant I could also eat al fresco most evenings on terraces or outdoor patios. I ate in just a couple of times, once in a restaurant that had just two tables. The absence of North American tourists coupled with the presence of Spanish and Italian tourists meant that when eating early (as is my usual preference), places were largely empty. Given that hand sanitiser was absolutely everywhere (even in remote long drop toilets on nature reserves) and staff were enforcing social distancing, I felt safe all the time.

Sightseeing in a pandemic

One of the big advantages of choosing Iceland over a city break destination is that most of the visitor attractions are out in the countryside and away from people. I did have a couple of disappointments: the Elf School in Reykjavik has closed for the duration of the pandemic and a Eurovision-themed walking tour I’d planned to do in Húsavík was not operating. I also found that several places had shorter than expected seasons, such as the Keldur turf houses, now part of a farm museum. But the ride I booked with Glacier Horses operated as normal, the horses enabling social distancing with no need for masks.

 

I did take two boat trips. The first, a Zodiac excursion out onto Jökulsárlón, required the use of weatherproof gear and lifejackets to be worn throughout the trip. The latter were disinfected after each boatload of passengers returned but I didn’t see similar measures being taken with the suits. In contrast, on the whale watching trip in Húsavík, the company made it clear before payment was taken that no additional gear would be provided. Lifejackets were stored on board and accessible to passengers but no one wore one. As it was relatively mild and calm weather, I was fine in my own winter jacket and waterproof trousers – in fact, I didn’t even need those out of the wind.

 

I also couldn’t resist the geothermal baths that Iceland is so famous for. On previous trips I’d visited the Blue Lagoon but this time it didn’t fit in with my plans. Instead, I enjoyed visits to the Mývatn Nature Baths and also GeoSea in Húsavík. The latter in particular blew me away with its breathtaking location overlooking Skjálfandi Bay and a setting sun reflected in both the baths and the sea.   

 

Would I do it again?

As someone who loves to plan trips meticulously – a hang up from travelling as a teacher when trips had to be scheduled in peak season – it was quite a big deal to be so spontaneous. Iceland once again didn’t disappoint, and to be able to travel in such glorious summer weather minus the usual crowds was a huge privilege.    

 

To keep abreast with current visitor regulations and procedures, visit covid.is where you’ll find more details of testing, what you can and cannot do while in quarantine and up to date case numbers by region.

Horse riding in Iceland: Glacier Horses

A review of Glacier Horses; I booked with them at the very reasonable rate of 11000 ISK (just under £60) for a 1.5 hour ride.

One of my favourite things to do while on holiday is to ride a horse. I’ve ridden a bit, but would still class myself as a novice. That said, seeing the countryside on horseback is well within my capabilities – so long as the ride’s limited to a few hours or so. This was going to be my third trip to Iceland but the first time I’d had the time to ride. Originally, I’d planned a September holiday, but in this new era of viruses and government quarantines, the whole thing was brought forward and the trip shortened by four days. I had thought about riding near Húsavík, in the north of Iceland, but it was looking difficult to fit in all the things I wanted to do up there, not least whale watching.

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I had spent the day hiking in Skaftafell, part of the  Vatnajökull National Park, drawn by a desire to see Svartifoss. This beautiful waterfall was even better in real life than it had looked in the photos I’d seen online, with basalt columns like chubby sticks of charcoal framing the foaming cascade. You can imagine I was in a great mood as I drove back along the ring road towards my hotel, not least as the weather had delivered almost cloudless blue skies.

As I rounded a gentle bend, the glacier on my left, a sign caught my eye: Glacier Horses. That was one of those serendipitous moments that make a holiday special: I had more time to ride during this part of my trip, making this the perfect place to do so if they could fit me in. On reaching the hotel, I had a look at their website and dropped them an email about a ride the following afternoon.

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I was impressed at the speedy response I received from Sophia and the following afternoon parked up in a farmyard at the end of a gravel track. I was greeted by a very friendly dog and very soon after, Sophia who would act as our guide and the other rider who would be coming out with us. Sophia explained how we would saddle up and get acquainted with the horses. Beginners (and those like me who hadn’t ridden for a while) would be especially reassured by this opportunity to test their newly acquired skills within the safe confines of a corral.

Sophia had paired me with a beautiful mare named Fluga. She was definitely a head-turner, a spirited horse but very gentle too. At first she took a little bit of getting used to as she didn’t need as firm handling as the horses I’d ridden back home, but we were soon in sync and ready to really enjoy the ride. One of the reasons I’d been so tempted with this particular location was the incredible backdrop from the glacier itself and riding out with a view such as that was a real treat.

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With Sophia leading the way, we headed out into the countryside, fording a couple of small streams, crossing grassy meadows and even cutting through what South Iceland would call a forest. We would probably term it a thicket, with low-growing birch trees that took on more of a shrub form than a tree, I’m guessing because of high winds and chilly temperatures. Regardless of what you call it, the place was very pretty apart from the occasional darting sheep that had been spooked by our arrival. Nothing fazed Fluga though.

We stopped briefly for Sophia to pick a few berries for us to try. They were delicious and I couldn’t help noticing how much smaller and more flavoursome the wild blueberries were compared to those back home.  The remains of a long-abandoned turf house also made an interesting diversion. And all the while we had that fabulous view in the background of one of the tongues of ice that drop down from Europe’s largest glacier. It really was a magical place.

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One of the reasons I was so keen to add Iceland to the list of places in which I had ridden was because of something called the tölt. This is an extra gait that is peculiar to this breed; there’s another, dubbed “flying pace” that seemed more than a little ambitious for anyone but an expert in the saddle. At home we have horses that walk, trot, canter and gallop. For a beginner, even a trot can feel a bit bumpy. Not so the tölt, described correctly as a four-beat lateral ambling gait. If you’re no equine expert and that doesn’t mean anything to you, it basically equates to “engage armchair mode”. This YouTube video helps explain it:

You shorten the reins a little, sit back in the seat and the horse does the rest. The speed increases, but the ride actually gets smoother than if you are walking. None of the up down, up down that you get when you trot at home. It’s something that Icelandic horses instinctively know how to do, and I was told it was Fluga’s favourite gait. It is so comfy, it rapidly became mine too. Sophia joked that it was the best treatment she knew for a bad back and I have to say, when we finished up, it seemed like she was right. I can’t wait to go back.

If you’re planning a trip to Iceland and want to ride too, here is where you’ll find Glacier Horses:

Address: Sel in Svínafell, 785 Öræfasveit, Iceland (between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, just south of the ring road.

GPS coordinates: N 63°57´46.0″ W 16°52´39.6″

More information on their website: http://glacierhorses.is/

Trip planning in the Coronavirus Age

It’s less than a month until I plan to be in Iceland. Usually by this point, I’d be a bit excited at the thought of a big trip. This year it’s a little different.

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Iceland will be my first trip since I returned from Russia in March. It’s been decades since I’ve been home for this long. Aside from a scenic drive through the Dedham Vale the other week, I’ve done no exploring at all. Since the UK lockdown restrictions have eased, it’s possible to take a holiday, but I’ve preferred to take a cautious approach, waiting to see what the numbers look like after others have taken their summer holiday.

That may or may not prove to be a good decision. I’ve tried to plan as far as possible to minimise financial risk. As fewer people are travelling at the moment, I don’t think I’m taking too many chances leaving bookings to the last minute. I have almost all my hotels booked on a free cancellation basis which also leaves me free to tweak the itinerary if I want to. I’m holding off on fixing up any tours, concerned that I might not get my money back if I do.

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Iceland as a potential destination was a considered decision. First, the coronavirus numbers there have been low, as you’d expect from a sparsely populated island with  a developed infrastructure. Second, this year would prove a good opportunity to tour at a time when visitor numbers were relatively low again – since my last trip in 2014, the popularity of the country has increased at a rapid rate. Third, the exchange rate has improved slightly on recent years, making this expensive country a little more affordable (and it’s not like I’ve spent much on travel this year!) Fourth, and most importantly of all, it’s a fabulous country but one I’ve not toured extensively, so this is the chance to see the east, north and west of the country, such as Dettifoss, pictured below.

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It was back in June when I booked my flights, choosing easyJet from Gatwick as the closest option. A week or so ago, I was starting to think about car hire and for some reason decided to check the flight times via easyJet’s website rather than from my emails. It was lucky I did, as the schedule had been altered and now flights to Keflavik airport from LGW aren’t starting until October. The website actually reads “no flights available” – the word cancellation isn’t used anywhere.

To date, I haven’t received notification from easyJet that the flights are cancelled. I think this is poor; the situation’s not likely to change and so giving travellers more time to adjust their arrangements would be the right thing to do. I’ve decided to be proactive, while alternative flights are available, though in practice that means travelling from Luton instead. I’m not too happy about that as it’s not a great airport and also parking is more limited. But more significantly, easyJet’s behaviour has knocked my confidence in them as a carrier and I think that will influence me in the future. Given that the Luton parking has to be prepaid, I’ve decided to make the arrangements as late as possible so I don’t end up with a booking I can’t use.

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I have a Plan C: Icelandair from Heathrow – but that’s even further to drive and means I’d be stuck with more expensive parking. In normal circumstances I’d prefer to travel by train to Heathrow but I don’t want to travel by Tube or train unless there’s no alternative. I should add I’m not complaining – after all it’s my choice to travel in these uncertain times.

Government policy has also changed my plans already. I’ve been watching Europe-wide numbers like a hawk, as our quarantine and FCO advice policies are subject to change without notice. But as I work from home and can quarantine with minimal impact, it’s actually Iceland’s policies that might have more of an effect. The rules when I booked my flights were that I would need to pay for a COVID test on arrival at Keflavik Airport. If I were unlucky to test positive, I’d need to go into quarantine for 2 weeks, but this would be at the expense of the Icelandic government.

The policy is now different for those opting for longer trips as I have. 4-6 days after the first on-arrival test, I will need to report for a second one. It’s free, but I will need to take time out of my sightseeing schedule to attend my appointment. Fortunately, this second test doesn’t have to be done at the airport, which is just as well as I plan to be over in the East Fjords by then. I understand why the Icelandic government have taken this step and fully support it.

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Of course I hope that both tests will be negative. I’m not unwell at the moment, I have no symptoms of the virus and for the next few weeks, I intend to remain home unless I really need to go out which should minimise my risk of catching it. I’m fortunate to live in a small village and in a part of the country which at the time of writing (let’s not jinx things) has fewer cases than the England average. But who knows what might happen? My September 2020 trip could well become a September 2021 trip. So I’m trying not to get too excited, in case my plans come crashing down around me. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be desperately disappointed if they do.