juliamhammond

Iceland

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.

 


I’m tentatively travel planning again – are you?

Over the weekend I booked a flight to Iceland. If I’d written that this time last year it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. After all, I’ve been twice before – once to get married – and so a return trip would be nothing to shout about. But of course, this year is different.

I might not go.

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I’ve only once in my life booked a flight thinking that there was a very real possibility I wouldn’t use it. It was for a day trip to Germany, and dependent on my husband’s work schedule. It cost less than £20, so when he had to fly off to the US at short notice, I wrote off the trip. This time, whether I get to go or not is most likely going to be out of my control. Right now, the stats for COVID cases in Iceland are looking very promising – a relatively small number of cases and very few deaths. But that’s not the problem.

Cases in East Anglia have now subsided to a low level and my local area is slowly getting back on its feet. I’d hesitate to use the word normal, but most shops are open, cafes are offering takeaway cream teas and the big coffee chains are open for business. I can see my friends, albeit at a distance. But yesterday’s announcement about Leicester having to reintroduce lockdown measures after a spike in cases is a reminder that nothing should be taken for granted. As people become more mobile again and have more reasons to go out within and beyond their local area, it will be interesting to see what happens to the number of cases in the UK. I’ve been out of my own county just once since March – to buy a sofa of all things – and have no immediate plans to do so again.

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The British government is imminently expected to announce a series of air bridges. It imposed a 14 day quarantine period on those entering the UK and travellers arriving from these air bridge countries will be exempt from this. There’s talk of a traffic light system: green for safe countries, amber for caution and red for, well, danger. Many of the countries are thought to be the popular European summer destinations – Spain, France, Italy and so on. If this goes ahead, we should soon see if this has brought the dreaded second wave or if flying and travelling can be considered an acceptable risk once again. I had nothing booked for summer, so haven’t had to think about how I feel about an existing trip. Have you?

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I’m anticipating the FCO advice will broadly follow the traffic light pattern and even though Iceland has not been mentioned when it comes to talk of air bridges, it could well be in the green category. Currently Brits can visit Iceland so long as they take a test on arrival and it’s negative (if not it’s a 14 day quarantine). If that policy holds out, then best case scenario is that my holiday will go ahead as planned; worst case scenario is that I test positive and spend two weeks in quarantine at the Icelandic government’s expense, forfeiting everything I’ve booked. Right now, I’d need to quarantine for 14 days on my return, but as I work from home anyway, that’s not a deal breaker.

Last week I renewed my annual travel policy – surprisingly with no increase in premium – and am covered for medical treatment including that for coronavirus, so long as the government hasn’t advised against travel to the country in which I show symptoms. That FCO advice is crucial. I’m not sure I’d want to take the risk of travelling without insurance, particularly for somewhere that has a high cost of living like Iceland. However, I have done so for brief periods during my trip to the Caucasus, for instance when I spent a couple of days in Abkhazia. It’s really a case of wait and see at the moment.

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In any case, regardless of FCO travel advice, I won’t be covered if I need to cancel because of coronavirus. In practice, that means that the amount I’ve just spent on flights (less than £100) won’t be recoverable if I can’t go, though I’m hopeful I’d get a refund or voucher. Anything else, for now at least, will be reserved on a free cancellation basis and reviewed at regular intervals between now and my September departure date. In the meantime, I’m planning an itinerary that I hope to follow this year – so far it includes the Diamond Circle, Arctic Henge, elf school (yes, it is a thing!) and the sheep roundup known as rettir – but may have to postpone until 2021. Watch this space.


A beginner’s guide to Iceland

Iceland’s fortunes are looking up. Years have passed since the volcanic eruption that resulted in flight chaos throughout the northern hemisphere.  Post-economic crash, Iceland is fully open for business.  Prices are rising sharply with increased demand, but it’s not quite the prohibitive just yet.  I published a Kindle guide to Iceland for Unanchor.com. It’s now on sale at Amazon here:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Iceland-Unanchor-Travel-Guide-self-drive-ebook/dp/B017SDBNE8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1449312882&sr=8-1&keywords=unanchor+iceland

Iceland's scenery is dramatic and beautiful

Iceland’s scenery is dramatic and beautiful

How to get there from the UK

Flights with Icelandair, the national carrier, depart from London Heathrow to Keflavik (KEF) the airport nearest to the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. It’s also possible to use Reykjavik as a stopover destination on your way to North America, making it possible to combine an Icelandic break with a trip to New York, for example. BA’s Cityflyer hops over from London City and BA itself operates to Reykjavik from London Heathrow.  Budget airlines also serve Keflavik. WOW air flies daily from London Gatwick, easyJet offer a good service from London Luton as well as flights from London Gatwick.  All of the above are non-stop flights and take a little over 3 hours.

Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon

Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon

Getting from Keflavik airport into the city centre

The simplest and cheapest way to get to Reykjavik is to use the FlyBus. This bus will take you from the airport to either the bus station or to a wide range of hotels. To find out whether yours is served, see this list from the FlyBus website: https://www.re.is/flybus/flybusplus – check Google maps if yours isn’t listed to identify which listed hotel is closest. Single fares to the bus station are 2700 ISK (about £19) and to your hotel 3300 ISK (about £23.50). The journey takes 45 minutes, there’s free Wi-Fi on board and tickets are flexible, so if your plane is late, you just take the next available bus.

If you are travelling as a larger group or further afield, you may prefer to hire a car. There are several car hire companies at the airport. Note that you’ll need special insurance if you plan to drive off road or on some of the interior’s gravel roads (the latter are closed during the winter anyway).

Icelandic fishing villages are charming

Icelandic fishing villages such as Olafsvik are charming

Getting around

If you’ve chosen not to hire a car, then have a look at the publicity materials branded “Iceland on your own” which provide information on how to get around using buses run by Reykjavik Excursions. Many of the country’s major destinations are served, the notable exception being the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west. You pay just for transport, passes are available and you pay your entrance fees when you reach your chosen destination as and where appropriate. A map showing summer bus routes can be found here: https://www.re.is/media/iceland-on-your-own/IOYO_Full.jpg. In summer, Reykjavik Excursions run an extensive range of day trips from Reykjavik incorporating all the main tourist attractions of the south and west of the country.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall, South Iceland

Seljalandsfoss waterfall, South Iceland

Reykjavik

The Icelandic capital is charming and a good base for the first time visitor. Pay a visit to the unusual Hallgrímskirkja church; it’s only 400 ISK to go up it and take in the views of the city. Also great for the views though a little out of the centre is Perlan; it has a good but expensive revolving restaurant which is popular but a bit of a tourist trap. I preferred the Icelandic Gourmet Feast at Tapas Barinn, seven courses featuring puffin, minke whale and lamb for 7990 ISK (about £57, but it will be the best £57 you’ll spend on food during your stay) – every one of them mouth-wateringly delicious. Check it out for yourslef on their website here: http://www.tapas.is/en/Menu/Icelandic_gourmet/ The area around Tjörnin lake is worth a stroll if the weather’s good; it’s not far from the main drag and is popular with joggers. Down by the harbour there’s a cool structure known as Sun Voyager or ‘Sólfar’ which is worth making the effort to visit; walk past Harpa, the city’s concert hall and along to the Old Harbour for a pleasant walk. In the opposite direction, you’ll come to Höfði House where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986 to begin the process of ending the Cold War.

The Sun Voyager statue, Reykjavik

The Sun Voyager statue, Reykjavik

Must-see attractions

It is possible to do your sightseeing on organised tours if you do not wish to drive and there are a number of day trips that depart from the capital. These are my suggestions for what to visit outside Reykjavik, covering the area of South and West Iceland.

The Blue Lagoon

Expensive but unique, this spa consists of a large pool fed by geothermally-heated water. It’s possible to book massages and other treatments. There’s also a bar if you’d like a drink whilst relaxing in the warm water. Pots of white silica-rich mud are yours to try out – spread it on your face and body for an enriching treatment. Tip: in cold weather, turn left on your way out and enter the pool indoors before swimming out – it’s warmer than making a run for it from the main door. It’s possible to visit the Blue Lagoon on your way to or from Keflavik airport and lockers large enough to take a suitcase are available. The Blue Lagoon is situated on the Reykjanes peninsula where the North American and European plates meet. With your own transport you can stand on a bridge that straddles the two – but be warned, it’s one of the windiest places in the country.

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle comprises three of Iceland’s most awe-inspiring attractions: Gullfoss waterfall, Haukadalur and Þingvellir, the site of the original Icelandic parliament. One of Iceland’s many dramatic waterfalls, Gullfoss is the spot where the Hvítá river rushes south and plunges into a chasm where the water explodes into a maelstrom of white water and eroded rock. At nearby Haukadalur, the original geyser, Geysir, has long since given up erupting, but the plume of water that spurts from nearby Strokkur is impressive and conveniently frequent. The Alþingi, or parliament, met at Þingvellir from 930 to 1798 and thus the site is important culturally and historically in addition to its stunning physical characteristics. The three sites are usually combined into a morning or afternoon tour departing from Reykjavik, but it is worth spending more time at each than the tour allows.

Strokkur on the verge of blowing

Strokkur on the verge of blowing

The Snæfellsnes peninsula

The Snæfellsnes peninsula is ignored by many but is a worthwhile day out. It’s a remote peninsula with a dramatic coastline perfect for a scenic drive. Its expanses of countryside are punctuated by small fishing villages including the charming Olafsvik. The Hollywood film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was filmed here, focusing on the village of Stykkishólmur. Another highlight is the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn. There you can find out how the Icelandic delicacy of hákarl is created and, if you’re brave enough, try a cube of this dried rotted shark flesh for yourself. It’s a bargain at 1100 ISK (under £8) per person. Find out what happened when I tried it here: http://theitin.com/places/europe/iceland/bjarnarhofn-shark-museum/grasshoppers-for-lunch-shark-for-dinner/

Trying hákarl, rotted shark meat

Trying hákarl, rotted shark meat

The south coast

Take the southern ring road towards Vik and you will come across two impressive waterfalls. Skógafoss waterfall has an impressive 60 metre drop, but for sheer drama, my choice is the beautiful Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Climb up the wooden staircase to the right of the falls as you face them and the path takes you behind the curtain of water. You will get wet but it’s a lot of fun. If you’re fascinated by the eruption that created an ash cloud large enough to clear the skies of planes, then the Eyjafjallajökull visitor centre is a must. Discover the stories behind the eruption and the causes of one of nature’s most disruptive events. Find out more on their website: http://www.icelanderupts.is/ On a secluded ash-grey beach only accessible by 4×4 is the wreck of a plane. Near Vik, the DC3 crashed back in 1973 with no loss of life, and the plane has been there, abandoned, ever since. You can clamber inside (at your own risk!) or role play at being plane crash survivors à la “Lost” (though that was filmed in Hawaii, of course).

The crashed DC3 near Vik

The crashed DC3 near Vik

Jökulsárlón

Situated on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park, itself a fun destination if you’d like to try out snowmobiling on Europe’s largest glacier, Jökulsárlón is a large glacial lake in the south west of Iceland. As the Breiðamerkurjökull calves into the lake, icebergs travel the short distance to the Atlantic Ocean where they bob about on the waves, washed on and off the beach until they finally melt. It’s a magical place; though the lagoon itself can get crowded, fewer people walk down to the beach which is a photographer’s dream. In summer, it’s possible to take a tour on an amphibious vehicle on the lake amidst the icebergs. If you think you’ve heard of it before, you might have seen it in a movie; Jökulsárlón has been a setting for several Hollywood blockbusters, most famously the Bond film, Die Another Day.

Jökulsárlón beach

Jökulsárlón beach