Departed San Francisco the evening of Monday 19 February and arrived in Auckland the morning of Wednesday 21 February after a quite pleasant 12 hour flight. Tuesday was nothing more than a dream somewhere over the Pacific. Such are the miracles of air travel.
Auckland is a sprawling city that straddles the North Island. I took advantage of this fact by walking all the way across New Zealand on my first afternoon in the country (it’s only 9 miles). Starting in the industrial west of the city, the Coast to Coast Walkway traverses through neighborhoods of Victorian and colonial houses with their corrugated steel roofs, then through parks, and finally to the central business district and eastern harbors. From One Tree Hill midway along the walk there are spectacular views across the island to the Tasman Sea in one direction and the Pacific Ocean in the other.
Many of the trees in the parks and along the streets are absolutely gorgeous.
Everything is very green, the weather is humid but pleasant, the days are long, and the natives are friendly. The cicadas are noisy, but I’ll get used to that. Today I will explore the city.
Slept very well after my afternoon of skiing. Got up early, had breakfast, and joined a group for a guided hike on Sólheimajökul Glacier. Drove about 2 hours southeast of Reykjavík. Mostly 2 lane road covered in ice and snow – the only indication one is on a road are the side markers and the packed snow from previous traffic (glad I didn’t rent a car). The guide showed us how to use the crampons and ice axes, then we headed onto the glacier for a 3 hour hike. It takes about an hour just to climb up onto the glacier. There we could see the blue ice often with steaks of ash from volcanic eruptions in years past. The weather would change from sun to clouds to snow seemingly within minutes. The glacier was covered in fresh snow but we could see many crevasses and other features of the glacier. It was a great experience for someone from California who rarely sees snow.
I didn’t sleep well and it looked cold outside so I almost decided to skip Blafjoll. But I didn’t have anything else planned, so one step at a time I worked my way there, thinking I could always turn back if it looked too miserable. It was snowing and cold when we arrived at Blafjoll, and I didn’t have proper cold weather gear, but I went ahead and rented skis and went skiing for the first time in over 25 years. I’m so glad I went. I had forgotten how much fun skiing is, and I had an amazing time.
Blafjoll is just a 30 minute drive from Reykjavík, but once outside the city the landscape becomes otherworldly. Trees and all other vegetation soon disappear, and then there are just endless lava fields covered in snow. There are 16 ski slopes. I started out on one of the easier ones and slowly worked my way up to the scale of difficulty. Apparently skiing is like riding a bike in that it’s not something you forget how to do. In the afternoon the snow stopped and the sun broke through the clouds. From the top of the ski slope, the snow covered lava fields ran into the shimmering sea in one direction, and in the other they merged with the clouds at the horizon. One of those rare moments of absolute peace, where the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine.
I was having such a great time skiing that before I realized it I had been skiing for four hours, and I was in danger of missing the bus back to Reykjavík. The day ended with more snow and thick fog – the weather in Iceland is fickle. I’m having a really nice time here. I’m doing things I haven’t done in a long time or have never done before. Sometimes change is good.
Landed at Keflavík Airport at 3:30am. Cold and cloudy, but no rain or snow – yet. The plane was 3/4s full, but only four of us are staying in Iceland. We saw the Northern Lights from the plane – a god thing since the Northern Lights forecast for is poor for the rest of my stay. It took about 3 minutes to get through passport control. No one was working at Customs so I walked through without stopping. Almost everything at the airport was still closed. Thank god there was a shuttle bus leaving in 20 minutes. Got to my hotel before 5am, and fortunately they let me check in early.
I booked this trip a few days before Christmas, which seems a very long time ago. I never got around to making any travel plans other than the flight and a hotel, and when it was time for the trip I was kind of dreading going to a cold, dark, dreary place – I felt more in the mood for someplace warm and sunny. But sometimes it’s good to have low expectations because it’s easy to exceed them. And I booked a hotel with a really nice fitness center and spa, and brought several books, so if it ended up being too miserable outside I could enjoy myself inside.
I slept very deeply for a few hours and woke up feeling very refreshed. I put on my polar gear and headed out to find something to eat and have a look around. And I had a very nice day. Reykjavík is a rather small city with a population of about 250,000. But there is a lot here – a beautiful location on the sea with mountains in the background, many parks, several museums, a gorgeous opera house, and an active fishing port. I had a very nice lunch and wandered around. I went to the visitor’s center and since I was the only customer they were able to spend plenty of time with me figuring out what my activity options are. Everywhere I went everyone was helpful and friendly. The weather was cold with rain and snow showers, but not oppressive.
Then in the evening I went to a geothermal pool near the hotel. There are several of these around the city. Laugardalslaug has two large outdoor geothermal swimming pools heated to around 86 deg. F. They are surrounded by several “hot pots” (hot tubs), a seawater pool, and a steam bath. And it was better than someplace warm and sunny. Swimming in a warm pool while it is snowing and seeing people wandering around in bathing suits when it is 30 deg. F out is a surreal experience for someone from California. I spent about three hours swimming and sitting in the various hot pots and had a really wonderful time.