5 Apr

Although it hadn’t snowed last night, only one lane of Highway 1 towards Hveragerdi had been cleared, making for an interesting drive in ‘The Snow Plough’. The scenery is absolutely stunning but it’s quite unnerving when the driver behind is almost touching your bumper. They must trust their breaks, that’s all I can say.

On entering Hveragerdi we stopped off at the service station and vinbudin for a bottle of wine, and to peruse the local walking trails board, before parking up by the thermal pool. Unfortunately it was closed for repairs, much to our disappointment. We both had very fond memories of the hot and ice cold plunge pools from our trip two Winters ago, after our dog sledding experience with these lovely people and the even lovelier huskies.

From the car park we followed a local fitness trail out of town. Who needs gyms when you can keep fit outside? Even if the temperature is -7 degrees C. Despite a biting wind the sky was clear, and along the way we spotted several steaming fumaroles and warm streams. We worked our way back to the car for a sheltered lunch, and then walked in the opposite direction across the river and through the park, up to the old woolen mill remains. The air smelt of sulphur and you could see steam vents pretty much from wherever you stood, so it’s impossible to forget that you’re in a seismically active area.

Back at the car by 3pm, we decided to head home through the mountains before darkness descended. This is very much skidoo territory and we saw quite a few on the tracks leading off the main road, and parked up at the service stations. I’d love my own skidoo.


We dropped ‘The Snow Plough’ off at 4pm, and walked up to a surprisingly busy Laugardalur pool. Taking a hot bath in public is obviously the done thing in Iceland on a Saturday night, and frankly I’d choose this anytime over a pub. Rich had to come back and rescue me from the boot changing area five minutes later as I’d managed to wedge myself into my super dooper duvet jacket. Fortunately I’d not reached the hyperventilation stage despite panicking that I’d not be able to get my coat off and would have to ask a stranger to cut me out of it.

After the obligatory naked shower we ‘discovered’ four hot tubs we’d not seen on our last visit, and kept ourselves entertained by dipping in and out of these as we got too hot or cold. Rich then managed to get hit on the head by a rogue ball in the children’s pool, causing him to lose his balance and his tinted glasses which he’d been using to protect his eyes from the water. It’s always a bugger when you can’t close your eyes properly, so he has different sorts of eyewear for all sorts of occasions. I spent ten minutes scouring the pool and asking fellow bathers if they’d seen them, but to no avail. So we gave up and asked reception if they’d hold on to them should an honest person hand them in. That’s if one of the toddlers, or ‘fat babies’ as Rich calls them, hasn’t already squished them. The thermal baths are a haven for fat babies, and you’ll often find yourself being used as a landing surface or flotation device by a little one you’ve never met before. They look absolutely adorable. No cold pools, spitting kids or psychotic lifeguards here. If I’d been born in Iceland I’d definitely have learned to swim before the age of 11.

Once our skin was completely water wrinkled, and we’d had enough of the American woman who wouldn’t stop talking loudly in the hottest hot pot, we donned the yaktrax for the walk back to the apartment, ate left over chili for dinner, and packed for our whistle stop trip to the far north of the country the next day.

Trying not to drown in the wave pool

1 Apr

It had started to snow heavily by the time we’d moved on to our second breakfast cuppa, so rather than driving a bit further afield as planned, we decided to stay close to Reykjavk and head for Heidmork, a conservation area just twenty minutes south of the city. The cross country trails are very well marked so we didn’t worry about not having a map. Instead we were disappointed that there wasn’t enough snow to try out our new snow-shoes!


Whilst we saw a few cross-country skiers and runners, we had the park largely to ourselves. With the mountains looming in the distance, it felt like the perfect Winter wonderland setting. We walked about 5 miles and then huddled in the warmth of ‘The Snow Plough’ for a picnic lunch.


I braved the return drive. It’s strange how snow and ice covered roads don’t phase me, neither do remote mountain roads in South America, but I dread driving through town at home. Maybe I should just buy a Monster Truck and scare other drivers out of the way!


From Heidmork we drove north to the Alftanes Peninsula and parked by Bessastandir church to look at the amazing views of Reykjavik and Mount Esja. I’d been a bit silly and had been taking my liner gloves on and off all day to take photographs. When I took them off again at the church they got excruciatingly cold very quickly in the biting wind. So much so that the pain bought tears to my eyes and we had to go back to the car so that I could warm up. I certainly learnt my lesson! The liner gloves stay on in future. The peninsula really is a wind trap, and the sea had frozen into big, solid chunks along the shoreline. Whilst the church is very impressive to look at, and you can walk from here across the spit to Grund, we decided against it because of my cold hands, and headed to Alftane’s geothermal pool to defrost.


Whilst I love the Blue Lagoon, the local geothermal pools are so worth a visit or three. Alftane’s is quiet, quirky, and has the only wave pool in Iceland! For £3 each you have access to a water slide, a small indoor pool, a larger outdoor pool for lane swimming, and three hot pots. I’ve never been a fan of spa resorts or even day spas, but this feels like the luxurious end of wild swimming. You can’t beat bobbing about in hot water, whilst snow flakes land on your head, especially after a hard day.


After about thirty minutes of bobbing, one of the locals told us that the wave machine was about to be switched on in the wave pool. Everyone made their way to the small pool, and we waited for what we assumed would be similar to our experience of wave pools in the UK. No. The Icelanders certainly don’t do things by half. In the UK, the waves start slowly, and build up to a moderate size that will move you but not that much. Here, they try to replicate gale force conditions, without a build up. High waves hit you instantly. Without any cochlears to balance himself, poor Rich had to scramble as quickly as possible to the shallow end or risk drowning. By the time the machine was switched off, we all looked as if we’d been washed out to sea. Forget aqua aerobics, 45 minutes of treading water in these conditions will turn you into an athlete in no time! After helping a little girl retrieve the shoes which had been swept off her feet, and Rich to stand up after swallowing half the pool, we retreated to the safety of the hottest hot pot (40 degrees C).

After negotiating the sheet ice in the car park we headed back into Reykjavik and the nearest 10-11 supermarket for some much needed chocolate. Such local supermarkets aren’t cheap, but the budget supermarkets don’t re-open until December 28th. After tea and biscuits to recover from our adventures, we cooked a comfort food dinner of chile con carne and settled down to plan our final day with ‘The Snow Plough’.

Grindavik and The Blue Lagoon

25 Mar

After what I’m sure will become a typical Icelandic breakfast of bacon, eggs and hot dog sausages, we donned the yaktrax and walked into town to collect our hire car from Cheap Jeeps Car Rentals – a trusty Subaru Forrester. They’d opened up for us  especially as so few tourists hire cars in Iceland during the Winter, and instructed us to just throw the keys back through an open window once we’d finished. Their 4 year old son was very cute, and had already learned how to say ‘ice cream’ in English. He’ll go far.

Within minutes we’d nicknamed the car ‘The Snow Plough’. Winter car hire here really is cheap and cheerful and well worth the effort if you’re used to driving in snow, as it can save you a fortune on organised tours.

Unfortunately halfway to Grindavik, a small coastal town south of Keflavik, I realised that I’d left my camera recharging in the apartment. I could have cried as I so love taking photographs and using them to help me cherish the memories. As it was Boxing Day (December 26th) there weren’t even any shops open where I could buy a disposable one, so I’m afraid that this blog will be illustrated using words and a few pictures from a previous trip two years ago.

Interestingly, Grindavik’s lifeboat was donated by the UK’s very own RNLI a few years ago. We parked by the harbour for a quick stroll in the biting wind, before driving back into the town and east along the Hopsnes Peninsula road, towards Krysuvik. The road quickly became an ice sheet so Rich turned the Snow Plough around, and I drove us back into Grindavik for a spot of lunch at the only place open – the service station. Whilst a burger and chips wasn’t cheap by happy meal standards, there was enough to fill our bellies without me having to eat the bun.

About 2km down the road we parked up at the bottom of the local hill – Porbjorn, and made it to the top with only one fall each – mine when I turned round to check on Rich as I heard him slip over on the ice. Even a local snow buggy got stuck and had to reverse after trying to ovetake us. It really is like  a lunar landscape, especially when covered in snow, and with so much walking within easy reach of the town we decided that we’d definitely come back for longer during a summer visit.

By 3.30pm the sun had started to set so we descended and drove north to the Blue Lagoon. Whilst some people describe it as a tourist trap, I’ve always loved it, and we come for a soak whenever we’re in Iceland. It was the quietest we’ve ever seen it, but still as atmospheric and other worldly. Until I heard some South Wales accents close by and got talking to a couple from Newport. It is indeed a small world.

I will never tire of the feel of the silica mud between my toes, the blue water, and the very hot spots. There are even tubs of the mud dotted around the pool edges for you to apply as a face mask. You certainly walk out feeling very clean and fresh! The water is warm without being scalding, and the heat encourages you to float rather than swim, and eventually to do a sort of crab like bounce rather than walk because your muscles have become so relaxed. The lagoon is big enough to escape noisy groups, has saunas, steam rooms and a massaging water jet, and if you’re feeling flush, you can book an in-pool massage in advance.

Me in the Blue Lagoon, complete with face pack. New years Day 2011.

Me in the Blue Lagoon, complete with face pack. New years Day 2011.

After a few hours of bobbing and floating we forcefully ejected ourselves and I treated myself to a bottle of their much loved shower gel and hand cream. The products are not cheap admittedly, but I make them last, and using them always brings back memories of the lagoon. We skipped the cafe this time, but if you want to eat on site there’s also a restaurant, and a bar with a rooftop view of the lagoon. Instead, despite Dervla’s absence, or maybe because of it (!), Rich drove us back to Reykjavik and the apartment without me needing to look at the map, and we dined on leftover pasta and tomato sauce whilst plotting the next day’s adventures in the Snow Plough.



ill in Iceland

14 Mar

Poor hubby had to spend the night on the sofa whilst I went through the usual sleep-vomit-sleep migraine cycle. We’d planned on spending Christmas Day walking locally, before dinner in the city centre at one of our favourite restaurants – Fjalakotturinn, part of Hotel Centrum. This was never going to happen though as I couldn’t get out of bed until 1pm, and even then couldn’t stomach anything more than a small bowl of skyr. Spending an hour walking into town to sit in a warm restaurant eating four courses whilst drinking champagne, would inevitably have meant another migraine attack, so hubby put his foot down.

His Christmas present to me bought tears to my eyes. In a few days we’d be lunching at our favourite ever Icelandic restaurant – Prir Frakkar, before walking over to Reykjavik’s magnificent concert hall for an evening performance of Icelandic folk songs. My present to him made him laugh out loud – Tickets for ‘Truck Fest‘ in July. As he harbours dreams of being an Ice Road Trucker, he’s secretly hoping that the lovely Lisa will be putting in an appearance.

Me after a migraine, holding my Christmas pressie

Me after a migraine, holding my Christmas pressie

After a Radox bath in geothermal waters in our very own bathroom, I felt more human than jellyfish, and spent the rest of the afternoon reading in bed whilst hubby went all Master Chef, having decided that we’d eat a la carte after all. I was instructed to wrap up warm for canapes on the balcony at 7.30pm sharp. Who knew that pickled herring, olives and cucumber rounds could make such interesting hors d’oeuvres?

Cheers Reykjavik!

Cheers Reykjavik!

Christmas day canapes

Christmas day canapes

We then had tandoori chicken, boiled rice and Indian style veggies served with mango chutney. The showstopper however had to be the Christmas pudding, bought with us from home, then covered in Cognac and set on fire by hubby! I stood well back to take the pictures. Who needs a five star restaurant when you can eat like this at home?


Yule lad napkins


In spite of the migraine, it was a perfect Christmas Day. Gleðileg jól.

Swimming in the North Sea

28 Feb

Despite having promised to see hubby and dad-in-law off to the Mull rally at 6am, I slept through their clatterings thanks to my super-dooper silicon ear plugs. My bad. You need ear plugs when your partner is deaf though, because they’re oblivious to how annoying throwing the toilet seat up with such force that it slams against the cistern in the middle of the night can be, for instance.

After the last of the smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast, mum-in-law and I donned our wetsuits, and drove down to Portmahomack for a quick dip. Because we’re really hard. The sun was shining, and with no wind it really was a glorious October day. The water was still bloody cold though so we didn’t stay in long. Just long enough to attract an audience, intrigued by the two strange women in brightly coloured swim hats.

Looking gawjus, in a wetsuit!


Portmahomack beach

Portmahomack beach

Wild swimming is definitely the way to go. Twas mum-in-law who introduced me to it a few years ago, and once you’ve tried it, there’s no going back to a heavily chlorinated pool. It’s good for your skin, and sense of wellbeing, and certainly wakes you up! This was definitely my last wild swim until the Spring though, or at least until I’ve bought some diving boots and gloves.

We drove to the Tain Pottery workshop after lunch, based not surprisingly just outside of Tain. I much preferred their designs (and prices) to the Anta range, so purchased two very cute tea plates, whilst mum-in-law very kindly bought us a matching milk jug. You’re welcome to watch the potters and painters at work behind the scenes, and it was fascinating to see the kilns and specially commissioned pieces. All of the painting is done by hand, with the training for just a few designs taking months at a time. Whilst the boss seemed a bit gruff to begin with, his staff were lovely and friendly, and enjoyed chatting and gossiping with us about local goings on.

From the pottery we headed back to Asda for some last minute essentials, and to the harbour in Port (what the locals call Portmahomack), before going back to the cottage one last time for a fish supper.

Portmahomack harbour

Portmahomack harbour

We were sad to leave Scotland behind after such a fabulous holiday, and as always it felt like we were away for longer than a week. It’s always good to leave work things at home though, to have a complete break, and to dream about plans for the future. I never miss the telly, my ipad, or even a mobile phone reception. Having complete peace and quiet is always appreciated. More of the same please.

The Oystercatcher

19 Feb

Kippers for breakfast, finally! They were lightly smoked, and went perfectly with a tomato and onion salad. Despite being a Scottish staple, at least in my head, we’d not been able to find any in Asda, but Tain’s fishmonger did us proud. I am a bit partial to kippers, I have to say. You soon get over the smell.

At 11am we left the cottage to walk to Iver via Portmahomack. It was still a tad windy but we’d come prepared with thermals, and so were able to enjoy watching the white topped waves, and collecting sea shells as we walked along the beach. The landscape on this side of the village is much more mudflats than cliffs, but it’s still very pretty, and interesting if you’re into ornithology. Sadly I can only just about identify gulls and curlews.


At Inver Links we cut across the sand dunes and headed into Skinnerton and Inver – two hamlets which now meet in the middle. Because the weather can sometimes be severe, most of the houses face away from the sea, and are largely single storey. It must be a pretty exposed place in the thick of Winter.

We re-traced our steps, collecting the shells we’d squirrelled away on the walk out, and arrived back at the cottage in time for tea and biscuits, or in my case – Cocoa Mountain cranberry and almond dark chocolate. What can I say, the sea air gives me an appetite, which is a good job as Cyn and Pete later treated us to a meal out at Portmahomack’s one and only restaurant – The Oystercatcher.

We didn’t quite know what to expect when we arrived. As the only guests at an eating place well off the beaten track, we were all a bit hesitant. The decor is brilliantly quirky – a real labour of love with clouds painted on the ceiling, suspended lobster pots, murals of sea creatures painted on the walls, and a bottle of practically every different type of whiskey ever produced on a big shelf above what must be the world’s biggest mirror. In the background, a CD played wave and seagull noises, making the experience that much more authentic.


Carrot crab

Carrot crab

As well as a restaurant there are three bed and breakfast rooms upstairs, all overlooking the sea front. Susan, our waitress for the evening, and her husband – a self taught chef, have taken it on as a retirement project, having previously run a large restaurant in the city. The menu is a combination of tasters, and choose your own two courses. Our first taster was a local speciality – a sort of fish chowder called cullen skink. This was followed by haggis dumplings; nettle and Fearn Abbey cheese soup; and a Ross and Sutherland hotpot – another local dish. I even got presented with a warm gluten free bread roll, despite not having given any advance warning that I can’t eat gluten. Susan didn’t bat an eyelid and took it all in her stride. Even the wines were delicious. I won’t pretend to know what I’m talking about when it comes to wine, but Pete certainly does, and he was a happy bunny.

Cullen skink

Fearn and nettle soup



The creme de la creme however, had to be the menthol and mint sorbet sprinkled with the adult equivalent of ‘space dust’. In case you don’t remember what space dust it – it was the pack of candy that you emptied straight into your mouth so that it could pop and sparkle on your tongue! What a surprise to experience this again some thirty years later! Talk about memorable. The food is so obviously cooked with love and passion, and the service is personable and endearing. It really is in a league of its own, and we all agreed that we’d go out of our way to eat there again. We only wish we’d discovered it sooner!

Space dust sprinkles!

Space dust sprinkles!

Last but by no means least, I have to mention the ladies loos. Posh toilets are much of a muchness. The Oystercatcher’s however, are beyond magnificent, and I would gladly move in permanently. Every possible type of sanitary ware is provided, free of charge. There are new toothbrushes, flannels, and music starts playing as soon as you enter. There are even magazines and hand lotion. Forget five star hotels, give me toilets with this much pizazz any day.

The throne room

The throne room


Bog walking

6 Feb

Drinking too much tea during the day always keeps me awake in the wee hours. Still, I got a solid four hours and the bed was comfy. Simply waking up to the fantastic view makes a stay here worthwhile, even in the rain and wind. It’s amazingly peaceful – we didn’t see more than one car pass every twenty minutes or so, and Mandy – our hostess with the mostest, said last night that during the thick of Winter she can drive for 65 miles and not see another vehicle. The nearest large supermarket is in Inverness so they do a big shop once a month, and then shop locally for odds and ends. Not many city folk could cope with having to make do like that. You have to be hardy to live out in the wilds like this. It’s worth it though for the surroundings, and to have 22 wild ducks land in your back garden, all eager for snacks!

Over a gluten free version of a full Scottish breakfast, Mandy informed us that the wind gusts would be increasing from 50mph to 90mph that afternoon. She and her husband are very keen rock and ice climbers, and won’t let any guests attempt a route which they might not be fit for. We know that nature is king however, so sensibly deciding to stay low rather than attempting to walk up Ben Klibreck, we settled for a walk from the Crask Inn, along the valley. This would still give us a good measure of the isolation of the place, and in the conditions meant that we could easily backtrack when we reached the by now unpassable river. We’d like to have made it as far as the head of Loch a’Bhealaich, but it’s a good job we turned round when we did as the wind did indeed pick up and we struggled to stay upright on our way back to the car. You’ve not lived until you’ve felt the sting of wind and rain on your bare bottom whilst making an emergency loo stop in the great outdoors. For us though, this is Heaven. It doesn’t matter that the way is wet underfoot, and the weather slightly adverse. Or that your snot has mingled with sweat, tears and rain and there’s little point in wiping it away because everything is sodden. Give us this over sitting inside and watching Eastenders any day.


Back at the Crask we talked briefly with the caretaker, who even as a Scot agreed that the weather was slightly adverse, and after making the most of the car’s heated seats headed back to the Ferrycroft Visitor Centre at Lairg for a much needed hot chocolate. The weather had kept the coach trips away so we were able to enjoy a proper look around, and buy some handmade Cocoa Mountain chocolates from Durness as we’d not been able to reach it and Smoo cave in person during this trip. We then stopped at the Loch Shin car park for a quick lunch, and headed back to the cottage along the north coast of the Dornoch Firth so that we could cross the road bridge.

The sea was so choppy that we felt obliged to drive back into Portmahomack and watch the waves crashing on to the beach and over the harbour walls. Fishermen were frantically trying to bale out their boats, and whilst it makes an impressive sight for holiday makers like us, it’s obviously an extremely tough way of life for the residents.


As always, it felt as if we’d been away for longer than one night. Cyn cooked a tasty dinner of fresh sea bass from the fish shop in Tain, and we dug into the Cocoa Mountain chocolates for pudding. Whilst Pete then settled down to finish his book, the three of us made ourselves cosy in the conservatory and watched one of my favourite films – ‘Like Water for Chocolate’, a fabulous Mexican film which always makes me want to travel, eat and cook even more, and fills our dreams with chocolate fountains.


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