No-one has ever come back from Disneyland and said: “It was great, but what a pity we just missed seeing Mickey Mouse...”
Mrs P and I had travelled to Iceland to see the Northern Lights, but Iceland isn’t Disneyland, so we knew we could wish on as many stars as we wanted but our dream might not come true...
But that just added an extra short into the cocktail of excitement as we stepped off our tour bus in the darkest part of one of Iceland’s frozen lava fields. The jagged rocks beneath our feet were cushioned with a moss so deep and soft that it felt like the gravity had been adjusted to match the Moon-like landscape.
We stared into the diamond-studded blackness for an hour, and some of our fellow travellers had begun to vote with their frozen feet by getting back on to the bus – until three strips of green neon light began to emerge in the black sky…
Would our dream come true?
It had so far. A trip around Iceland’s Golden Circle of prime sights the day before had included a free blizzard, metaphorical icing on the cake.
First stop was a little town which grows much of Iceland’s vegetables in greenhouses powered by the plentiful geo-thermal springs, where the local pensioners were lining up in the snow at the outdoor pool, a bit like a casting session for the sci-fi classic Cocoon.
Inside the town’s shopping centre was a small history display from all the way back to 2008 when the last earthquake struck, an upbeat selection of eye-witness testimonies and a reconstruction of a demolished kitchen, if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms, literally bringing home the impact of the quake because it looked so contemporary. No-one was injured, and one of the locals had turned the smashed domestic items into a cheery collage before moving on from the near-disaster to a better life. Tracy Emin take note.
Waiting for an earthquake of its own is Geysir, the original hot water geyser which gave its name to all the others because no-one had ever seen one before it was discovered.
It still shoots its spouts up to 30 metres, but a good tremor, we were assured, would shake the sulphur deposits out of the underground streams which feed the geo-thermal system and get the spouts even higher – although it is unlikely to ever reach its original 90 metres again.
Geology is almost as current as current affairs in Iceland, which is a baby in geological terms, and the highlight of the tour was Thingvellir National Park, a rift valley with an impossibly deep lake formed in the hole created as the Eurasian and American tectonic plates slowly drag two ends of Iceland apart.
The American end is marked by a palisade of rock wall which stretches for miles, and it is here in 930 AD that the Allthing, the world’s first parliament, was formed, where Icelanders met for two weeks to sort out disputes, pass laws and get the latest news. It was amazing to think that the place they had chosen where the people could pull their country together was exactly where it was being pulled apart.
There are no buildings there now – because there never were. No parliament chamber, no corridors of power, no backrooms for back-hand deals. Parliament in those days only had power when the people were present. What a shame that idea didn’t catch on…
Iceland’s parliament in now in Reykjavik, or Smoky Bay as it was named after the vapour clouds which often drift across the cold Atlantic.
The architecture is half moonbase, half garden shed, as the high-tech homes of the suburbs give way to the traditional homes near the centre, which are like gingerbread houses made of brightly-painted corrugated iron.
These tin huts also house trendy bars and restaurants, including the poshest Icelandic eaterie in town which had what might have been a menu outside, but could well have been a list of the staff’s names and their annual salaries. It’s not cheap out there.
Our one meal out, a very nice Italian in a fairly upmarket restaurant, cost more than £60 for two main courses, one pudding, one glass of wine and two tiny beers.
There’s also plenty to explore – museums, galleries, churches and vantage points, and you can look across the bay with a 21st Century city behind you at the towering, almost virgin headlands and mountains, where it looks like people hardly ever visit. They could be in a different world, or you could imagine seeing it just as the first Vikings to discover Iceland saw it, or…
“It could just be the Great Orme at Llandudno,” sighed Mrs P wistfully, proving that you can take the girl out of North Wales, but you sometimes wonder why you bother.
After braving the blizzards and lava fields, as well as all the shops selling woolly jumpers, now was the time for a bit of luxurious lazing, which does not come better than The Blue Lagoon.
To describe The Blue Lagoon as the outflow from a power station fuelled by geo-thermally heated seawater is totally accurate, but also misses the point. It’s just pure fun – spread over a 5,000 square metre hole in the lava filled with piping hot bluey-green brine where you can wallow, wade and drift around, occasionally not even able to see the snow-covered “shore” because of the clouds of steam.
It’s like stepping out of a swimming pool changing room straight on to the surface of another planet.
And for those of us who like culture, there’s beer from a bar in the middle of it! The clever chip in the bracelet which controls your locker also tots up all the meals and lager you consume there.
So did we see the Northern Lights after all?
Yes… and no. They were certainly there, with those first few tentative lines slowly becoming a green band glowing across the sky – but with none of the twists and swirls and weird brilliance we’d hoped for.
But just as we were walking back to the coach, a meteorite fell to earth. That wasn’t in the brochure. So Walt Disney, we still got a falling star to wish on after all.
And we both wished to come back, and fulfil our dream of seeing the Northern Lights.