A frequent visitor reveals it's hotspots and shares a naked encounter with the country’s biggest export
In a local swimming pool in the centre of Reykjavik, I’m sitting in a cloud of steam, enjoying the stinging heat of my very first steam bath. All the while I’m thinking of all the things I associate with Iceland: Sigur Rós, GusGus, múm, Emilíana Torrini - all music artists I enjoy to listen to. Oh and of course there’s the most famous of all: Björk. Literally. Sitting next to me.
I finally realise it actually is her when we are standing opposite each other, naked, in the communal showers. No one else seems to notice her but I do and I feel very shy. Firstly, it’s my first communal shower experience which is quite scary enough. Secondly, she happens to be my musical idol and when we make eye contact I’m wondering if she thinks I look like her (it has been said) or whether she thinks I am a stalker.
I later learn that Björk is here to headline at the annual Iceland Airwaves festival where she is performing tracks from her newest album, Biophillia, which is largely inspired by the nature of Iceland.
That night I am taken to The Grillmarket, a newly opened restaurant in a little cobbled lane in the heart of the main town which is also inspired by nature. The fittings and furniture are modern in design but the walls are lined with Icelandic timber, lava, fish skins and moss. Even the food is served on plates made of lava stone.
All the ingredients are sourced from local organic farmers and prepared in a traditional Icelandic way but “with a twist”. The menu includes whale, puffin and lobster mini burgers, lamb, meat, meat and more meat.
I refuse to eat whale, but when I leave I certainly feel like one and I return to my hostel to sleep off this impressive meal. Despite what you might be led to believe less than 5% of Icelanders actually eat whale meat and they are only killed to attract tourists. Despite their rapidly diminishing numbers, you will see it served almost everywhere. I would suggest eating lamb instead as Iceland has the best, organic lamb in the world.
Like a whale, I am also drawn to the water. I feel the need to go scuba diving in the Silfur Rift in Thingvellir National Park. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Listed area and also happens to be the location of Iceland’s first Parliament in around 930 AD. Silfur Rift is a crack between the American and Eurasian continental plates through which melting glacial water flows down to the country’s largest lake. In the diving industry, it is considered one of the top 5 dive sites in the world for its crystal clear waters.
“You will feel a head-freeze when you enter, but stick with it for a few minutes, it will be one of the best dives you’ve ever had,” our dive guide Kevin tells us. It’s cold you see, 3 degrees Celsius to be precise. “And if you get thirsty, just have a drink, it’s the purest water you will ever taste,” he suggests.
We are kitted up with dry suits, thick gloves and hoods and are determined not to let the cold spoil the day. We dive slowly through the canyon, which is in some places only just shoulder width. The water is the bluest of blues and the green algae seems fluorescent in contrast.
Except for the curtain of bubbles of the divers in front of me, I feel like I am flying through a canyon. We drift along slowly for 30 minutes when numbness takes over my hands and our dive comes to an end in a little sandy lagoon. I quickly walk back to the dive van to rest and warm up with hot chocolate. An hour later we repeat the whole thing again. It’s definitely worth it.
When the dive school drops us back at our hostel that evening, exhausted and hungry, we first head straight for the showers. Iceland benefits from its location in a geographic and volcanic hotspot with seemingly endless, naturally hot, geothermal water. It is used as an energy source, but also means instant, blissful hot showers after a long day in the cold.
Even better than a shower, is a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Taking a bus from town the next day, we are dropped off in the middle of a lunar landscape of volcanic rock formations. Signs in the showers show us which bits to wash before we may enter the lagoon. This time we are thankfully wearing bathing suits.
Once thoroughly sanitised, we make a dash out the doors into the cold air and head straight into the warm, opaque, blue water of the lagoon. Little white faces bob in the water. We join the other dozens of bathers by covering our faces in white silica mud and grabbing a beverage at the wet bar.
“The mud is good for your skin and the beer is good for your soul,” one bather tells me. Personally I prefer hot chocolate, but I do make sure I buy some of this mud on the way out to take home.
On my last day I take a 4 hour bus tour to see the Golden Circle to see some of Iceland’s most famous sights. Iceland’s treeless landscape is quite mesmerising. Flat tundra, rising volcanoes dotted across the place and a grey-green moss that seems to cover absolutely everything.
As we pass Thingvellir National Park we approach a forest. Well you’d be forgiven if you miss it. “In Iceland we say that if you get lost in the forest, just stand up,” the driver tells us jokingly. The trees are only one metre tall you see.
At Gulfoss we see one of the most waterfalls in all of Iceland, it’s a powerful beauty. Then a few minutes down the road, we visit several Geysirs, including the original sprouting hot spring which lends its name to all others. After waiting patiently to grab a photo of it shooting boiling water nearly 70m into the air, we pile back into the bus for the return journey.
Back at the hostel, a former biscuit factory on the harbour, now fitted with retro American furniture, I can lounge about and eagerly plan my next trip here.
Number one on my list: Northern Lights are said to be the best in the next 12 months due to solar cycle. Number two: see the Glaciers in the north. Then there's whale watching, hiking, horse-riding and more.
I can see this list is going to grow quite quickly. But that’s ok. Thankfully Iceland is as affordable as the UK so I won’t have to wait long to return.
- Easyjet flies from Luton. www.easyjet.com
- Iceland Air flies from Heathrow www.icelandair.co.uk
- Wow Airlines fly from London Stansted www.wowair.is
- Kex Hostel, dorms start at £25 per night. Private rooms from £35 per night
- Alternatively, Radisson Blu 1990, rooms start at £130 per night
Things to Do:
- Scuba Diving & Snorkelling Day tours including hotel pick up/drop off, equipment and hot chocolate at around £150 per day with Dive.Is www.dive.is
- Blue Lagoon open daily, entry EUR 30 per adult. Bus pick up/drop off can be arranged at most hotels www.bluelagoon.com
- Bus Tours - Grayline www.grayline.is
- Whale Watching with Elding www.elding.is/ EUR 48 per adult.
- Car Hire with Hertz from GBP 50 per day including hotel pick up and drop off www.hertz.com
Grillmarkađurinn (Grill Market) Lækjargata 2a, 101 Reykjavik
Tel: +354 571-7777 www.grillmarkadurinn.is
Fiskmarkaðurinn (Fish Market)
Aðalstræti 101 Reykjavik, Iceland
Tel: +354 578-8877 www.fiskmarkadurinn.is
More Information: www.visiticeland.com