Islands, Fjords and Waterfalls: The Best of Iceland’s WestThinking of visiting Iceland this year? Vikki Beale, one of our Travel Specialists, got off the tourist trail to explore the wilder side of the Land of Fire and Ice - something she highly recommends for summer 2014.
I was thrilled to be travelling to the West Fjords, Iceland’s wildest and oldest region, and one famous for fjords (as its name suggests), mountains and thrilling coastal roads. And visiting in summer meant long hours of daylight - perfect for packing as much into our days as possible.
But the West Fjords wasn’t where our journey began. Our starting point was Snaefellsnes Peninsula, specifically Stykkisholmur, where we took the ferry across Breidafjordur bay for an overnight stay on Flatey Island; a little slice of solitude renowned for its bird life.
We were welcomed to Hotel Flatey, a lovely accommodation comprising two charmingly-renovated old houses, and where we had a warm and cosy night’s sleep. We were lucky enough to be given a tour by one of the locals, which included a walk around the island, passing old painted houses that have been lovingly restored over the years. We also visited the old library and a church with Flatey’s history stunningly painted on its walls and ceiling: quite a sight.
This is an enchanting place to visit and looking back, one of the trip’s highlights. You don’t necessarily have to spend the night here - taking the morning ferry and returning on the evening service will give you enough time to continue to Brjanslaekur in the West Fjords, which is exactly what we did the following day.
Our journey continued across Breidafjordur - at no extra cost the car went ahead of us the previous day and was waiting for our arrival at Brjanslaekur harbour. Onwards, then, to Latrabjarg, Europe’s westernmost point, the largest bird cliff in Iceland (and indeed in Europe) and one of the West Fjords’ must-see attractions. We parked the car and in true Icelandic fashion experienced all four seasons in the 10-minute walk to the the top of the cliffs. Their sheer height is enough to make you dizzy; they’re absolutely momentous.
On departing the west shores we prepared for the long drive to Isafjordur on route 60. A must-see en route is the Dynhandi set of waterfalls. With a cumulative height of 100 metres they’re quite something to look at, and can certainly hold their own with the arguably more famous waterfalls on Iceland’s south coast.
You definitely get a sense of isolation the deeper into the fjords you go, but by no means are these fjords inaccessible. The drive for the most part was on long and winding gravel roads, which have been intricately carved from the sides of mountains and around deep uninhabited fjords with turquoise waters. The roads are virtually traffic-free and the remoteness is something to savour - with such a large number of majestic mountains surrounding you (their slopes covered with moss in every shade of green imaginable; the higher you go the blacker they become, dotted with patches of white snow), you almost feel as though the landscape is exclusively yours to enjoy.
For travellers who want to explore the more remote areas of Iceland, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Flatey Island and the West Fjords come highly recommended. You can experience all three on our Best of the West holiday, one of our most scenic itineraries and the perfect adventure for summer 2014.
Ice sculpture workshop at the Icehotel: the only penguin in the Lapland...
While staying at the Icehotel in Swedish Lapland in January this year, Discover the World's Content Editor Clare Wilson tried her hand at ice sculpture. Here's how she got on...
There's something magical guarding all the wishes made in the Icehotel's Secret Garden lobby this year; it’s a pure, brilliant white unicorn – crafted by Anna Sofia Maag, the woman who had just handed me a well sharpened chisel.
Before we headed into the workshop, she had taken us down to look out over the frozen river Torne. The river still flows sluggishly far beneath its frozen surface, and Anna Sofia explained a little about the process of growing the ice; it is by clearing off insulating layers of snow from the surface, that ice-farmers can harvest the huge blocks of ice that go into creating a full hotel from scratch every year.
And it’s the same ice that we – the afternoon ice-sculpting group – were about to attempt to carve.
Where the magic happens...
The ice sculpture workshop, like the Icehotel, is kept at a constant -5C and before letting us loose on our own blocks, Anna Sofia demonstrated a few basic techniques (shave, don't stab), gave us some safety tips and advised us to get a mental picture of what we wanted to make before getting started.
I've always been a bit creative and, OK I'll admit it, I'd had a brief go before - so I knew roughly what to do. The hardest part is deciding what you want to make.
My colleague Jennifer's ice-racing-car ambitions were somewhat stifled by the blocks being of a 'portrait' orientation, but she gamely started carving her car nose-down - all was going well until two slightly over-enthusiastic chips knocked one back wheel and the tail off. All was not lost, however - Anna Sofia came to the rescue with a basin of what we thought was some special glue... and turned out to be water!
"More 'Pingu' than 'March of the penguins'..."
I'd decided I'd make a penguin, although not having too-clear an anatomical idea of a penguin's physical proportions, it ended up far more Pingu than March-Of-The-Penguins. Hopefully I won't be sounding too smug, but the satisfaction of seeing a definite beak and flippery wings emerge from the ice was incredible, and the afternoon passed incredibly quickly for both of us.
Whatever your level of creativity (and whatever the success of your chiselling) after trying your hand at ice-sculpture you'll come away with a renewed appreciation of the incredible talent and artistry that goes into creating the rooms and suites of the Icehotel itself.
Profile of an Ice-sculptor
Profile: Anna Sofia has been a professional sculptor for 13 years; she first came to the Icehotel as an artist 8 years ago and has been a regular at the Icehotel for the last 5 years. As well as ice, she has worked in clay and concrete.
Best thing about working in ice? The transparency - it's the only medium that you can see all the way through. I also like that you can instantly see what you've done.
Most challenging thing about working ice? The same things!
What's your favourite thing about running the workshops? It's such a different craft - it's fun to see peoples' ideas. Some people know what they want to make, some people do something completely crazy!
You can see more of her work at www.annasofia.se
Why should you travel to Iceland to see orcas and auroras?
Gary Ward is embarking on our Killer Whales and Northern Lights escorted holiday in Iceland this spring for the third year running. We caught up with him to find out why the trip has such an appeal.
What was your opinion of escorted holidays before going on the Killer Whales and Northern Lights tour?
I had an idea that everything was very regimented and to a rigid schedule. That you’d almost be compelled to do what you were told to do – that there would be no options or choice about it for you.
That perception that wasn’t based on any personal experience (or even experience from friends or family) but sometimes – like we often do – you just pluck an idea out of the sky without actually having any base of facts and, I’ve got to be honest, that’s what I did.
What made you change your mind?
Before the Killer Whales and Northern Lights trip, I’d actually been on two city breaks with Discover the World to Iceland. I went on a trip to try and see the northern lights, but unfortunately, I saw nothing so I couldn’t tick that one off.
That’s when the first Killer Whales and Northern Lights trip was coming up and, as I have an interest in wildlife as well, it was ‘kill two birds with one stone’. Unfortunately we were the only group that didn’t see the northern lights – the cloud didn’t break for the four days that we were there – and that’s how trip number two came about! I was like a dog with a bone then, I couldn’t put it down – I had to see the northern lights.
Did you see them on the second trip?
Absolutely! It still stands as was one of the best auroras of 2013 while we were there, which more than made up for the grey skies of the year before!
We were also extremely lucky with the killer whales – there were loads of them in flat-calm waters, blue sky, and we were there for as long as the whales so it was just win-win on all counts. Last year was absolutely excellent.
I had no intention to book a third trip, but January, February, March – it’s like dead time in a way isn’t it? What do you do? There's nothing going on, so I thought ‘I know… northern lights again!’ No-one ever sees the northern lights and thinks ‘oh, I don’t want to see that again’.
What stands out as a highlight for you?
Last year we went out to a hillside near the waterfall just out of the village to see the northern lights and it just came on; it was like switching on Blackpool illuminations, and I’m there – a grown man – with a great lump in my throat. It is just overwhelming to see it in full flow like that – the sky burning green like that was just wow.
Are you worried about going back again after such an amazing experience?
I know there’s every possibility I could go there again and it be another completely overcast four days, but when you’re into wildlife and nature, you know that those sort of things don’t perform on demand; you understand the risks.
Did you enjoy travelling as part of a group?
Yes, everyone was really like-minded – just good, decent people, all with an interest in the same kinds of things, and appreciation of that. They were also perhaps people who, like myself, have travelled a bit further and wider than your typical package holiday, so you can talk about each other’s travel experiences in far flung corners of the world as well as your own. That small, sort of little social circle that you form – well, its just good.
What did the guides bring to your experience?
Cathy [Harlow] is a fantastic guide! Her knowledge and enthusiasm is second to none – that really rubs off on to you and makes you enjoy the whole experience even more. It gets you involved in your surroundings more than perhaps would otherwise be the case if you’re just driving through yourself.
On the first year, there was also Vassili [Papastavrou] the whale expert who was also extremely knowledgeable and very enthusiastic about whales – he just imparted his knowledge to you in a very informal manner, it was a really relaxing education!
I now appreciate that travelling with a guide can be more advantageous to myself in terms of the knowledge you can gather, picking out the best spots and things that you might not know about if you were just to turn up to a location yourself.
If like Gary you want to see the northern lights in Iceland, Discover the World has several trips to choose from, and it's not too late to travel this spring. Try Killer Whales and Northern Lights to combine seeing orcas and auroras; our Northern Lights Special if you're interested in visiting the Golden Circle too; or Volcanoes and Northern Lights to explore other-worldly volcanic landscapes and the dramatic Highlands.
Northern Lights and Killer Whales – Cathy Harlow’s trip diary 2014
Cathy Harlow, one of the expert guides of our Northern Lights and Killer Whales escorted holiday, gives us her updates on the 2014 season so far...
3rd March - a calm sea at last!
"The DTW group headed out of the fjord on board Laki and just 30 minutes into the trip we found a small group of orcas making their way slowly towards Kolgrafafjordur. The light was beautiful and we photographed a majestic male orca silhouetted against Kirkjufell, Grundarfjordur's signature mountain.
"Then the orcas paused to circumnavigate a rocky islet - what had caught their attention there? Later those on Brimrun witnessed one of the group baring teeth to show off a fishy mouthful. Back on shore, the researchers commented that this group of orcas has been witnessed catching seals in Shetland last summer."
27th Feb - A night to remember
"A night to remember for most colourful auroras I've ever experienced. Grundarfjordur was overcast but we took a chance on a break in the cloud as we headed to the south side of Snaefellsnes. It was a good move as beyond the watershed we saw the first streaks of light dance in and out of the clouds. We pulled off the road, huddling for shelter in the lee of the coach as the clouds parted to reveal a star-studded sky.
"And then the show got going, as beautiful curtains rippled overhead and bursts of light showered down like fireworks in slow-motion. But it was only when we looked at our photos that we saw the true range of amazing colours: pink, deep-red, crimson and many hues of green."
18th Feb - Whalefest are getting spoiled!!
“After a day of gorgeous sunshine on the Golden Circle Tour, the Whalefest group travelled west to Grundarfjordur on Snaefellsnes. Edging along the peninsula, Snaefellsjokull volcano was silhouetted in the fading light of a pink sunset as the first stars appeared overhead.
“Then, in the darkness of Kolgrafafjordur, we found the aurora bow arched across the sky. What luck to witness a wonderful display of northern lights before we'd even arrived at our destination. After dinner we stood outside the Hotel Framnes and watched the aurora dance well into the night.
“Next day, we sped out of the fjord in search of an orca pod that had been sighted earlier. They were heading for the next fjord, where 80,000 tons of herring are on the orca menu. We sailed alongside as the pod of ten porpoised in a choppy sea.
“The sunlight and silvery mountains were a dreamy backdrop to the orcas' graceful movements as they surfaced, arched and dived again. But all too soon they were off with a tail slap and a splash, steaming into the inner fjord.”
10th Feb – officially off duty, but…
I am officially off duty during this group, which is one of Alexa's, but I did go on the boat trip yesterday so here are a couple of photos and a snippet of info...
“After a night punctuated with auroras that danced for hours, there were a few bleary eyes on the morning whale watch trip. Heading out of the fjord we passed a dozen or more white-beaked dolphins feeding, but we were keen to press on to the next fjord, where orcas had been spotted gorging on herring.
“Typically, we've been seeing between ten and fifty whales at a time in this scenic, sheltered fjord. Cruising among the fins and blows, we observed orcas resting, feeding and travelling. In one group we noted a tiny calf, whose white patches were still pink, so this winter's baby. A cheeky youngster spy-hopped right by the boat, clutching a herring in its teeth - all too quick for the cameras though.”
8th Feb - we did it!
“After three nights of aurora hunting frustrated by overcast skies, we were ready for a lucky break. Whilst Grundafjordur looked set for another cloudy night, on the south side of Snaefellsnes, a break in the cloud was forecast. Now all we needed was for the solar activity to step up. A solar flare two days before was due in but would it arrive in time?
“We took a chance and headed through a snowstorm to the south side of the peninsula. Finding a gap in the clouds, we drew off the road. Within minutes, shafts of green light, edged in crimson, shot across the sky in waves and ripples. We did it! With tripods juddering in the gusty wind, photography was challenging, but hand-holding our cameras, braced against the bus, we captured the magic of the moment.
“Next day we ended the tour with a soak in the Blue Lagoon and discovered that yes, the sun does shine in Iceland in winter.”
4th February - 'our' orcas are full of surprises
“The winds that lashed us overnight had passed by the time we boarded Brimrun. Soon we were sailing for Kolgrafafjordur, where snow-dusted peaks frame a fjord teeming with thousands of tons of plump herring.
We never know which orcas we might encounter in this gourmet fish eatery but today's 'clients' included a trio of young killer whales, who were in the mood for fun. As they entertained us with playful spyhops, rolls and tail-slaps, we replied with a volley of shutter-clicks. While the juveniles cavorted on the surface, the adults in the group were hunting herring, and gulls and gannets dropped from the sky to grab the scraps. What a feast for the eyes.
Later, the research team told us that three of this group had previously been spotted in the Shetland Islands. 'Our' orcas are full of surprises!”
(The group were also treated to the northern lights over Kirkufjell on the night of Saturday 1st Feb into Sunday morning - this photo of some of the group is from Cathy's fellow guide Alexa Kershaw:
Pam Forrest, who was on the trip, had this to say about the display:
"Auroral hunting is all about being ready so when the knock on the door came just before midnight, I threw on my salapettes over my pyjamas and rushed out the back of the hotel for the start of an auroral display that pretty much lasted over two hours. It really varied in intensity, sometimes disappearing, sometimes dancing, but with the prospect of more to come.
"As the auroral started to build again, we walked away from the hotel to get a view of Kirkufjell with the lights behind - still in PJs! So, basically I ended up lying on a rock at about 2am with the wind whipping around me taking long exposure shots of the NL all the time chuckling cos I was still in my pyjamas! Quite simply the best way to watch the auroral as you're ready for bed when it's all over..."
29th January - orcas in every direction
"29th Jan was clear and crisp with a flat-calm sea. We sped out of Grundarfjordur aboard Brimrun, knowing that orcas had already been sighted in the neighbouring fjord. En-route, hundreds of gannets torpedoed, piercing the sea either side of the boat, their splashes reminiscent of orca blows.
Suddenly, Alexa shouted out ‘orcas’ and there they were, a row of fins lined up on the far shore of the fjord. But these orcas were in no mood for hanging about and were on their way out of the fjord. Soon we had a second group in our sights and before long they had us surrounded – orcas in every direction. A youngster breached and the lucky whale watchers with cameras at the ready captured a magic moment.”
23rd January - what a treat
“We encountered our first group of orcas just 10 minutes out of port and cruised with them alongside as they steamed out of Grundarfjordur towards the open sea. Then, inside neighbouring Kolgrafafjordur, we spotted tell-tale blows on the horizon and within minutes we were in the company of two further groups of whales.
“A row of dorsal fins broke the surface of a mirror-calm sea. For a while it seemed like they didn't want us around so we hung back, then suddenly a playful youngster breached, and spy-hopped just 20 yards from the boat. What a treat. All around, flocks of gannets patrolled the skies, diving torpedo-like in pursuit of herring.”
In celebration of Waitangi Day – where once were warriors…
Lindi Sprenger, our New Zealand Product Manager, explains why she loves the historic Waitangi area – and why you should visit.
One of my ultra-favourite places in New Zealand lies in the heart of the Bay of Islands. Waitangi is known as the birthplace of the nation, and is arguably the most historically significant part of the country. If you are planning a visit to the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ then the best starting point for your holiday is undoubtedly the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
The history of Waitangi Day
On 6th February 1840, the founding document of New Zealand – the Treaty of Waitangi – was signed between the pakeha (Europeans) and Maori chiefs, under the watchful eye of Governor William Hobson, Queen Victoria’s representative. Today there are celebrations at Waitangi and across the country to commemorate this historic event.
Nowadays, Waitangi evokes a wonderful sense of peace and tranquility, far removed from the fierce and intense Maori battles of long ago. Evidence of these can be seen in the picturesque village of Russell where musket ball holes are still visible on the old weatherboarded walls of New Zealand’s oldest church, Christ Church (built 1835-6).
The views here are simply spectacular and worthy of as much time as you can spare. This is now a place of great peace and a real connection with Maori and so, to experience Waitangi in all its glory, I would recommend that you join a guided tour of the historic Treaty House with its delightful heritage gardens and the beautifully carved Maori Meeting House, Te Whare Runanga.
Don’t miss the Maori cultural performance which is always immensely moving and sometimes utterly spine-tingling. So when you are planning your New Zealand holiday, please make sure you include a visit to this very special and captivating part of this wonderful country.
More historic sites to in New Zealand
We will be delighted to include a free VIP Pass allowing you entry to one of the properties featured in New Zealand’s Historic Places Trust, including Kerikeri Mission Station or Pompallier Mission and Printery in the Bay of Islands.
Images © Destination Northland
See the northern lights in March
Spring – with its longer hours of daylight and warmer temperatures – isn’t far away and as the aurora’s still in the sky, February and March are a great time to travel to see the northern lights.
Think ‘spring’ and chances are you’ll imagine a hint of green growing on the trees, snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils poking up through the ground, gambolling lambs… but maybe not the northern lights.
The Spring Equinox
Although it’s still somewhat of a mystery to scientists, the period around the spring (or ‘vernal’) equinox is often considered the real peak of annual northern lights activity. Although there is never any certainty of seeing the aurora, traditionally, auroral activity is strong in the weeks around an equinox. The spring equinox is on 20th March and, as we’re still in the ‘Solar Maximum’, there’s still potential to see glory in the skies in February and especially in March.
This is fantastic news if you’re one of the many who people dream of seeing the northern lights as travelling to see the northern lights late in the season has other bonuses too.
Why should I travel to see the Northern Lights in March?
Whether you’re up in Swedish Lapland staying in Jukkasjarvi at the Icehotel, visiting the Aurora Sky Station at Abisko and exploring the winter wilderness at Kangos – or indeed watching killer whales in Iceland – things are starting to warm up in February and March.
As well as increasingly mild average temperatures, the ‘Kaamos’ (polar night) is over and the regions have longer hours of daylight. More light means more time to take part in the many activities offered in these northern regions.
What can I do during the daytime?
While you’re waiting for night to fall, and the chance to hunt the aurora, there are a host of things you can try.
In Scandinavia, we can arrange for you to try ice-driving, snow-shoeing and ice-sculpting. You could also learn to mush your own team of huskies on a wilderness adventure, go snowmobiling, join a horseback safari to search for native reindeer and moose – there are plenty of options to fill the daylight hours!
Or perhaps you’d like to explore craggy volcanic landscapes, hike on glaciers, visit frozen waterfalls, watch pods of orca cavort in sheltered fjords, or relax in natural thermal hotsprings? In that case, head to Iceland to combine your search for the aurora with a plethora of natural wonders.
- Follow @DTW_Aurora for Discover the World’s daily aurora forecast tweets
- Check out Will Gray’s tips for photographing the northern lights.
- Watch Aurora Sky Station’s live camera.
Northern lights photography workshops at the Icehotel
You’ll never forget seeing the northern lights, or staying in the Icehotel, but to keep the memories aurora-green you’ll probably want to make sure you have your camera handy.
Ice, snow and (hopefully!) the northern lights are not the easiest subject matter though, which is why we’ve asked renowned photographer Ragnar TH Sigurdsson to share some professional tips to help you come home with fantastic photos.
Ragnar will be running complimentary photography workshops exclusively for those travelling with Discover the World on our direct flights to the Icehotel on 18th and 25th January, so it’s not too late to book a spontaneous winter adventure !
What happens on the workshops?
There will be three hour-long sessions with Ragnar, fitting around any other activities you have booked on the three night break. These include:
• an introductory talk on the basics of how to make the most of your camera’s settings in the conditions
• a practical session under Ragnar’s guidance
• a lesson in basic image processing.
“I want to inspire people,” says Ragnar. “I want to show them what can be done, how it’s done and how they can figure it out for themselves.”
Since there are never any guarantees of seeing the northern lights, he will also help you come up with creative Plan B (and Plan C) options and will be on hand to answer any general photography questions that you might have.
Ragnar’s philosophy for these courses is “having fun is priority number one!” His extensive experience and passion are evident in both his images and his approach to teaching, which will fire your enthusiasm and help you come home with the best possible pictures.
What will I need?
To make the most of Ragnar’s workshops, ideally you’ll need a DSLR camera – or at least a compact camera on which you can adjust the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings.
You’ll be standing outside in the cold, so although you’ll be wearing the Icehotel’s all-in-one ski-style-suits, do bring along things to keep yourself as warm as possible, such as pocket hand warmers and thin liner gloves that you can operate your camera in.
Things to remember:
Your camera (!)
Charger and adapter
*Wide angle lens
(*if you have them)
More about Ragnar TH Sigurdsson
Long-time friend of Discover The World, Ragnar has been capturing every facet of his homeland, Iceland, and many other northern destinations since 1975. He has photographed the Icehotel for several years and has been one of their official photographers. His work is acclaimed by the likes of Getty and National Geographic, and his images can be found throughout our website and brochures.
To find out more about the workshop, and book your place, click here or call one of our travel specialists on 01737 214 250.
Iceland stars in 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'
Iceland’s erupting geysers, iceberg-filled glaciers and dramatic fjords have long served as a go-to when a mystical, fantastical land is required by Hollywood, but until the Boxing Day release of Ben Stiller’s 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty', audiences may not have realised this otherworldly landscape was Iceland at all.
So it was with some excitement when we learned Iceland would effectively share a lead role with Stiller in the romantic comedy, which tells the story of day-dreamer Walter escaping his humdrum New York office life for adventure, romance and heroism – mainly in the Land of Fire and Ice, which happens to be a first for a Hollywood blockbuster.
Seven Icelandic locations were used by the crew, from Seydisfjordur in the Eastfjords (one of the film’s iconic scenes sees Stiller skateboarding towards the village, population 668, on a sun-drenched mountain road) to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula village of Stykkisholmur in the west. Stiller spent a total of five weeks in Iceland, also shooting at Gardur on the Reykjanes Peninsula and Grundarfjordur, where his character jumps on a bicycle in search of his friend Sean, somewhat appropriately played by Sean Penn.
The Snaefellsnes village of Grundarfjordur is one we’re particularly passionate about as it’s the base on our Killer Whales and Northern Lights itinerary, which sees holidaymakers go in search of two of Iceland’s most spectacular natural phenomena. But visitors don’t have to look to the heavens or out to sea to be amazed by Grundarfjordur; the village is also famous for Mount Kirkjufell, recognised as arguably Iceland’s most beautiful mountain thanks to its iconic ‘sugar top’ appearance. And fortunately for walkers and hikers, it’s also straightforward enough to climb.
It’s at Gardur, meanwhile, where Mitty takes a leap of faith into the rather chilly north Atlantic, and while we wouldn’t recommend the Reykjanes Peninsula as a place to take a dip in the ocean, we would suggest exploring its impressive volcanic flows, steaming vents and bubbling mud pools, which you can do on our year-round Volcanic Explorer holiday.
Greenland airport also makes an appearance in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, though everything isn’t exactly what it seems. The scene was actually shot in Hofn, a pretty Icelandic fishing village in the south-east and a popular gateway to attractions including Jokulsarlon, Skaftafell National Park and Vatnajokull, Iceland’s largest glacier. Jokulsarlon, a serene glacial lake famous for its floating icebergs, is already an established filming location having featured in two James Bond movies, Batman Begins and Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider. You can see it for yourself on our seven-night Essential Iceland holiday, which takes in the Land of Fire and Ice’s most revered natural attractions.
We heartily recommend embracing the Mitty spirit and treating yourself to a couple of hours’ escapism enjoying this film. Chances are you’ll be tempted to see the beautiful landscapes of this north Atlantic gem for yourself sooner or later.