Chilling out in Iceland's hotspots

by Nat Harrison

From Reykjavik’s thermal spas and open-air pools to Laugardalslaug's cosy bars with log fires and sheepskin rugs, Iceland is now more appealing and affordable than ever

Iceland, believe it or not, is hot stuff. For tourists at least. Famed for gargantuan geysers, raging rivers, volatile volcanoes and pop pixie Bjork, it is a capital city that's one of the world’s coolest places.

It's cheaper for tourists to stay in Iceland than years gone by. High inflation rates mean life’s pricey for locals, but for tourists more than one drink per night on the tiles is feasible with a half litre of lager around £3.70.

It’s not as cold in the winter as you’d think, plummeting to around -0.5C, and fairly warm by Scandinavian standards in summer, at around 10C.

Capital Reykjavik, while not bustling, is vibrant in a chilled-out way. At times it’s hard to believe its home to 63% of the island’s population. But with fantastic shopping and bars and restaurants second to none, there’s something for everyone.

Hallgrimskirkja Church is one of the must-see landmarks of Reykjavik. You can hike up Mt. Esja, enjoy the legendary nightlife, visit galleries and enjoy the local fjords and scenery. Or go whalewatching or sheep herding on a three-day trek on horseback. It’s all there.

Should a cold snap hit – it is Iceland after all – there are opportunities to warm your freezing bones in one of the Reykjavik’s many thermal spas or open-air, heated swimming pools with cooler pools complemented by hot tubs reaching up to 45C, all from the thundering thermal energy in the ground below.

Good ones are in Laugardalslaug and the newly-opened Álftaneslaug wave pool which imitates natural waves (so popular with the locals on opening day it caused ‘mass hysteria’ according to the park’s director). It's a hub for Icelandic cafe culture, where locals meet to swim, chill and chat in the evenings, all for roughly the same price you’d pay for a dip in your local public pool.

A great base is the 101 Hotel, which is highly popular among those who want to take in city centre life. With cutting-edge design, double rooms are under £250 and top suites are £580.

And the city’s bars are welcoming and often funky, many with warming log fires and sheepskin rugs.

Food in Reykjavik is as cosmopolitan as you’d expect of any major European city, with ample opportunity to sample local fare at cosy haunts such as Restaurant Thrir Frakkar (Three Long Coats).

While the days of Viking traditions – such as urinating on your meat and burying it, devouring its rotten flesh once dug up– are long gone, expect to find some unusual delicacies on the menu. For those who don’t eat fish and don’t fancy whalemeat or puffin breast, there’s just one option: lamb.

Fashionistas and shopaholics may well take a trip to Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main artery, offering boutiques, designer outlets and thrift stores. Kolaportid flea market, near the Old Harbour, is also well worth a visit.

Outside Reykjavik, swap two legs for four and take to the hills on horseback. Icelandic horses have a unique gait – a tolt – which will ferry you gently across rugged terrain, taking in the beauty of rolling hills and faraway icecaps or the stark, barren lava fields smothering the south. Or perhaps go whalewatching in Husavik City, visit the relaxing and atmospheric open-air Blue Lagoon spa, or, if you go at the right time of year, catch the spectacular Northern Lights.

A favourable exchange rate means £1 buys you 213 krona (compared to 130 in 2007)  and you’ll get more if you buy before you travel.

You’ll even be able to afford the odd gift to take back home. On Reykjavik’s Skolavordustigur, there are four souvenir shops. Last year there was one. So while it’s not cheap, you won’t be doing what travellers used to – bring their own food to take camping.