James Brown

Sabotage Times publisher, Talk Sport talker, NME alumni and launcher of Loaded, Jack and GQ Man of the Year.

@jamesjamesbrown

sabotagetimes.com

To stay in the beautiful hotel James visited, head to http://www.hotelbudir.is

Published

January 9th, 2015

Driving along the road to Snæfellsnes, on the western tip of Iceland, I was coming up to the two hour mark of the really loud Elvis sing-a-long I had been enjoying when I saw something I hadn’t for a while: people.

There were two of them stood by their car, looking up at a waterfall which was so stunning that if you saw it online you would question whether or not it was photo-shopped. A long white scar down an imposing volcanic cliff that had been glowering over the right hand side of the road for a while now.

When you think of Iceland you may think of snow, ice, white water and a Blue Lagoon, you might think of Bjork and her Sugarcubes or a footballer or two, but the blackened lava field I was driving through was something new on my radar.

I stopped the car and joined the others by the side of the road and we all just stared in awe at what nature had set before us. Moments like this tend to remind you of your place in the pecking order of existence.

Moments like this tend to remind you of your place in the pecking order of existence.

The King and I

If you like singing in your car, but don’t like people watching you do it, I couldn’t think of a better road than Iceland’s Road 54. There are, of course, many reasons to go to Iceland, but the chance to blast out songs with The King and convince yourself that you are actually in tune with him whilst driving amidst some of the most brutal landscapes imaginable is as good as any.

I’d travelled to Iceland to do an after-dinner talk to an Anglo-American technology company who were hosting their annual dinner at the famous Blue Lagoon. When I’d finished I decided to stick around and try and go whale watching. Unfortunately, the whale watching boats had closed for the season the day before I arrived. With four days free I called my friend, John, manager of the band Sigur Ros for some local advice.

Go to Snæfellsnes,‘ he said. ‘It’s where the Icelanders go when the tourists go to Gullfoss. They absolutely love it, but they keep pretty quiet about it.’

Image via Tom Page

At the car hire office the typically attractive Icelandic lady behind the desk handed me my map and keys and asked me where I was going. When I told her ‘Snæfellsnes’ she told me, ‘Oh it’s so lovely there’. So I asked her if she wanted to come and she blushed before replying, ‘Can you wait till tomorrow after work?’.  It felt like the start of classic French black-and-white film from the fifties. Unfortunately my impending flight back meant I couldn’t, and I prefer driving to waiting, especially in a place where you can really, really drive.

I set off north out of Reykjavik on Route 1, heading for Snæfellsnes and a place I’d booked by phone named Hotel Budir. After chatting to my friend, I’d got the impression that Budir was going to be like Tobermory, the pretty little Scottish fishing village that the kids TV show Balamory is filmed in. I envisaged a small stone harbour, a pub, a terrace of workers cottages with bright doors the colour of sweets. I imagined a small bustling community where the postman is an inventor and the school teacher also runs the local shop, that sort of thing. The drive would take a couple of hours and you couldn’t miss Budir, that’s all I knew.

Tough, beautiful and different, the show captured the spirit of the country and the people.

It was my third time in Iceland and I was quite happy to go on some sort of adventure. On both my previous visits I had had fantastic times. The last time I’d been was on a short family break that took in the stunning natural sights the Icelandic tourist board had to offer and some fantastic skidoo-ing. The first time, however, was to cover the Miss Iceland leg of Miss World for The Independent newspaper. If you needed something to show you how different Iceland is to the rest of the world that was as good a barometer as any.

They didn’t go for the usual passive Miss World look. Instead of an evening dress interview, they had a catwalk show with the women in business suits waving the newly produced Apple laptops. They didn’t have a swimsuit parade, they had the women posing in a boxing ring. Tough, beautiful and different; the show captured the spirit of the country and the people.

That trip to Iceland – which had left me with the unique memory of being thrown around the dance-floor and into a dining couples food by a fantastically energetic female hairdresser from Miss World whose only English words were ‘You are an angel!’ – was a very different Iceland to the one I encountered now.

Image via Batintherain

The Grand Budir Hotel

I passed under a five mile tunnel where the sea became a fjord and then stopped at a truckers stop in Borgarnes; it felt a little like I was in an obscure Scandinavian road movie. The people were polite, but wholly uninterested in my journey, so I ate a simple meal and drove on, heading from the 1 to the 54. Pretty soon, I found myself cutting through volcanic fields to the left of me and mountains to the right. The road was empty and had I not stopped to see the waterfall, I probably wouldn’t have spoken to or seen anyone for hours.

It was a good job I did, though.

Having said my goodbyes to the other awe-struck waterfall watchers I was slowly pulling back onto the road when, before I could even accelerate, I noticed a small sign saying ‘Budir’ pointing down a track to the left of the road. I stopped and looked across the track towards the sea and wondered if it was some sort of old back route that pre-dated the main road. All I could see in the distance was something that looked like the roof of a barn. Maybe the land dropped away and the village of Budir was hidden from my view? There was nothing else in sight, so I crunched off the main road and picked my way through the lava fields.

Fans of isolation would have been delighted. One hotel and one tiny church. By comparison, Tobermory was Shanghai.

The nearer I got the more I was sure this was just some fishing boat house. Then I caught site of a tiny wooden church, and the ‘boat house’ seemed to have quite a lot of windows and looked pretty modern. Drawing up, I realised this was indeed Hotel Budir. It looked like two contemporary barns standing next to each other with a reception joining them in the middle. I climbed out of the car, looked around, saw a couple of other cars, a shed and the church. That was it. Fans of isolation would have been delighted. One hotel and one tiny church. By comparison Tobermory was Shanghai.

Behind the counter was Tania from Reykjavik. It’s fair to say that, today, everyone I’d met who was behind a counter was absolutely stunning. When I asked her what there was to do around here, she replied ‘There’s a dead whale on the beach, that’s about it. I’ve an old Icelandic film I can lend you?’

After I’d checked in and walked down to the beach and taken some pictures of the whale skeleton, I headed back for dinner. The location was spectacular, as was the food. ‘The head of the Bank of Iceland comes up here in a helicopter every Friday for lunch‘, explained the waiter.

I’d never been in such a truly breathtaking, but remote place before.

Image via David Kerwood

WHEN NATURE CALLS

After watching the Icelandic film – which was like a medieval Dead Man’s Shoes – Tania offered to show me round the area, if I’d agree to give her a lift back to Reykjavik when I left. The next day we went to a beach called Djúpalónssandur, which was completely black but for the rusting Irn-Bru-coloured hull of a Victorian trawler from Grimsby, with a little plaque pronouncing that it was a historic item. There can’t be too many places around the world where Grimbsy has played a part in local history.

As I leaned against a well-weathered rock stack, taking a personal call of nature into the waves, a movement out at sea caught my eye. And there, maybe two hundred yards out, were three whales swimming across the bay, slowly heading southwards. Even though they were a way out, the scene was totally mesmerizing. Hastily zipping myself up I screamed ‘Tania, look! Look!” She came running like something bad had happened and then laughed when she saw what I was pointing at. I was standing silently on a black beach with a beautiful woman in a Mary Quant dress looking out into the sea where whales slipped quietly by.

It was, quite possibly, the perfect moment.

MAIN IMAGE: Snæfellsnes – Didier Baertschiger

FURTHER READING

Beyond Reykjavik – Five fantastic day trips outside of the capital

The Best Places in the World to See StarsA list of the best locations to look skyward

Frozen FrontiersIt’s surfing, but not as we know it