As far as long weekends in Europe go Iceland is probably down as one of the most unique holidays I’ve ever been on. Dare I say it closely rivals my obsession with Italy and comes a very close second to be the country I’d love to move to.
Prior to visiting Iceland, home to just under 350,000 people, I had no real expectations aside from it being cold, expensive and pretty.
Everything we did and saw far exceeded any of what I’d imagined. We learnt so much in the four days we spent there that my son and I left feeling very happy and knowledgeable about this unique moon-like terrain which has everything from waterfalls to glaciers to tectonic rifts and landscapes that seem to go on forever.
Iceland is known to be beautiful any time of year, but there’s something particularly special about spending the spring months here and if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know how much I love an out of season, less tourist-packed getaway.
Spring is when Iceland thaws and wakes up from the hibernation of winter. Days are getting longer, nights shorter and there are no snow storms or dangerous icy roads.
Crashing waterfalls, colourful houses, pollution-free blue skies, huge mountains, a giant milky-blue hot-spring and a desolate ring-road that runs around all of it are some of Iceland’s best-known features.
Choosing what to do in our short time there was challenging to say the least. Where to start?
It has become a tradition between Coby and I that we go away every year for his birthday, just me and him, to celebrate somewhere unique but also to have some quality time on our own. Last year we went to Croatia (read about that here) and we loved every second, so this year we couldn’t wait to see if Iceland could compete with our past adventures.
It didn’t fail, that’s for sure.
Taking an early flight from Heathrow and landing in Keflavik at 9.30am meant we could get to our apartment, found just near Hallgrímskirkja church, have a quick freshen up and head straight out.
Our first activity of the day was whale-watching and as we wandered down through Reykjavik town towards the old harbour, passing lots of interesting street graffiti and filling our hungry tummies with a delicious lunch at a cool vegan restaurant called Vinyl, we began to get very excited. Speaking of Vegan burgers, Luisa got to try out Hamborgarafabrikkan (dare you to try and pronounce that one!) and the vegan burgers there look amazing, I’m so going to try when I next go back to Iceland.
Would we see any whales? How many? What types? How close would they get to the boat? Would we be freezing cold? Is there food on board? The last question was Coby’s main concern, but you know, teenage boys eat like human dustbins and food is important! 😉
There are so many options for what tour to book in Iceland, tourism is their primary source of income so you’re always going to be spoiled for choice. Knowing full well that personal recommendations always work out for the best I booked with Special Tours on the recommendation of Becca at Always Carry On. Even though I know she sadly didn’t get to see any whales on her tour, what she’d said about the company itself and an earlier tour she’d done with them was encouraging.
Not seeing any whales is a risk you must take and nobody’s fault at all, but if this happens to you Special Tours will offer a FREE ticket to try again!
Fortunately, as you’re about to find out, we were very lucky on the day we sailed out in the North Atlantic Ocean. Very lucky indeed.
Special Tours respect IceWhale’s code of conduct for responsible whale watching and will only let the animals approach the boat, whilst keeping their distance so that the whales’ daily routines are undisturbed. This is incredibly important, and I can confirm that this is adhered to from what we saw. And of course, it goes without saying, that no one is to ever touch, feed, or swim with the whales. Not that you’d want to jump in the water anyway, its flipping freezing!
Speaking of freezing, if you’re reading this thinking that you might be a little chilly out there at sea, don’t worry. Special Tours provides all guests with warm, winter clothing. Do bring a hat and a scarf just in case as it can get quite nippy.
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The Old Harbour is easy to find, and the touring companies stands are lined up neatly along the side where you can wander up and collect your boarding tickets. All super organised and dealt with very efficiently too. Our boat was ready and waiting to go so we wandered over to board giddy with excitement.
Ignoring the inviting warmth of the decks below, Coby and I headed straight up the steps without even having to discuss this and plonked ourselves smack-bang in the middle of the seats at the back with the perfect view over the whole boat, sea to our left-side, right-side and behind us.
Our mission to see as many whales as possible was serious.
And it’s not just whales (mostly humpbacks, though killer and minke whales can be spotted, too) that you should be keeping an eye out for, the bay in Reykjavik is also home to dolphins and porpoises. Keep your eyes peeled, you’ll maybe spot a flock of Atlantic puffins flapping their way down and across the sea too.
Cruising past the Harpa Concert Hall and quickly picking up speed whilst listening to the crew’s instructions about how they would be shouting out clock-number directions for when they spotted the tell-tale signs of a whale, or better still a pod of whales, which is apparently very common we admired the colourfulness of Reykjavik in the bright sunshine.
They also explained that although we are obviously there to see whales, to have a minimal impact on the whale’s habitat they wouldn’t be using any equipment to find them. They rely purely on eyesight, binoculars and in-depth knowledge of the whales’ habits.
We enjoyed views of distant, snowy mountains capped with low clouds and surrounded with lush, green rolling hills. Iceland is beautiful from every angle and I clearly remember thinking ‘this is just perfect’.
Ten minutes later, with Coby doing a great meercat impression with his head bobbing back and forth eager to get the first sightings, we realised we’d been drifting along and looking for whales for quite some time and began to wonder if we’d see any at all.
Then suddenly there was a gasp from the right. We dashed over to the barrier and there we saw our first humpback whale. Actually, I heard the water coming out of the blow-hole first. Then I saw a large black body rise just above the surface of the water and his tail elegantly flipped back down and he disappeared to only come up again thirty seconds later with a friend.
The boat was silent. Aside from a few cameras clicking everyone was mesmerised by the magic we’d just seen.
Three in a pod at one point, all feeding together with swarms of seagulls circling above and a crisp wind passing from behind us. Thrashing in the water, boat engines switched off, being as quiet as possible, the whales glided slowly closer towards us.
It was all go from that moment on and whales were appearing and disappearing all over the place. ‘One-clock, four-o’clock… eight-o’clock! We were laughing and running from one side of the boat to the other being careful not to fall and lose our balance at the same time. From one minute to the next, another whale would appear from the sea and porpoises would swim alongside the boat keeping up speed before darting off to the side to re-join their pod.
I couldn’t believe that I had ever worried that we’d never spot a whale. They were everywhere and watching them in their natural habitat was truly incredible.
No photos or videos can ever do this experience justice. It’s something you can only witness in real to truly appreciate just how magical an experience it is.
If you go to Iceland I can highly recommend Special Tours, this is the exact tour I booked and at £115 for the both of us it was worth every single penny.
We’ll remember this day for a very long time.