Iceland is delightfully surprising; it's pristine and beautiful, friendly and quirky. In summer, the sun never sets, and there’s plenty to do, whether you're feeling sporty, lazy or just plain hungry
What is the attraction of one of the world’s most northerly countries? It's simple: Iceland is beautiful. It has more natural wonders than you can swim in, hike over or ski down. It has geysers, mind-blowingly powerful waterfalls, geothermal spas, mountains, national parks and some of the friendliest people around.
The capital, Reykjavik, is stylish and chic, with museums, art galleries and music festivals. Eighty-five per cent of the city has been built since the 1950s, so it’s shiny and new. Its people are relaxed and into enjoying life. Where else in the world would you see a sign saying “Road closed due to good weather”. In downtown Reykjavik, it’s common practice to close off city streets when the weather is fine, turning them into pedestrian-only areas where cafes and bars open out on to the pavement and everyone soaks up the sun.
And sunny it is. Iceland has 24 hours of daylight in summer. In the tourist office, I overheard a group of young, enthusiastic Americans asking if they could get a GPS with their rental car. Smiling patiently, the woman behind the counter replied, “Two things you need to know about Iceland. Firstly, we don’t have many roads. In fact, there’s only one road around the island and as long as you stay on that you won’t need a GPS. Secondly, you don’t have to worry about getting lost in the dark.” In summer, Iceland doesn’t do dark.
What to do
The country’s famed Blue Lagoon (www.bluelagoon.com; +354 420 8800) is to Iceland what the Eiffel Tower is to France. It was recently listed as one of the world’s top 10 spas by Condé Nast Traveller magazine and it’s worth the 35-minute bus ride from Reykjavik. As you step on to the outside deck of the spa, the air temperature can be brisk, even in summer (and freezing in winter), but the geothermal waters are always an inviting 40°C. Part of an ancient lava formation and full of sulphur and silica, the lagoon is only waist-deep in most places. The water is relaxing, rejuvenating and you won’t want to get out. Dotted around the edge of the lagoon are buckets of white silica mud - slather some on. According to some, the mud’s revitalizing properties are good for the skin, and you’ll blend in with the locals, who swear by it as their elixir of youth.
If you prefer something more energetic, Iceland has sports in spades. You can ride a bike, climb a mountain, run a marathon, fish for salmon and trout, go diving and snorkelling, ride a horse, raft down a river, kayak in the ocean, ski, swim, play basketball, handball, ice hockey or soccer. Or, if you really want to get into something different, try glima. It’s wrestling, Iceland-style.
Whale-watching is a must, too. There’s something about being up close and personal with 100 tons of whale that gets your heart beating a bit faster. But be warned: rug up. Even in summer, it’s cold standing on deck with the wind whipping around you. Remember the binoculars, too.
When you tire of that, there’s always golf. In a country with fewer than half a million people, you'll find 65 golf courses available to play on from late May to early September. The local Reykjavik city course is challenging. It doesn’t have many trees, but the barren undulations, lava rough, and gale force winds make up for that. For real enthusiasts, the annual Akureyri Arctic Open in June tees off at midnight. It’s the most northerly 18 holes in the world (65°40’N).
After all that activity, you won’t starve. There are plenty of restaurants, bars, cafes and even a hot dog stand made famous by former President Bill Clinton’s visit. Upscale Laekjarbrekka (Bankastraeti 2; +354 551 4430; www.laekjarbrekka.is), located in one of the oldest buildings in Reykjavik, specialises in traditional cuisine. It’s charming, cosy and serves consistently good food. It’s often booked out, for good reason. Not for animal-lovers, though - there’s minke whale and puffin on the menu. According to Olga, our waitress, “Whale meat is dark, because it’s a mammal, a bit like liver. Usually the Japanese, Norwegians and Chinese like to eat it, but we try to discourage others. I always ask ‘Have you tried whale before?’”. It was after 10pm, but we could have argued long into the daylight on the moral issue of not eating whale. Olga simply said, “If you are Greenpeace, you don’t eat whale.”
Another of Reykjavik’s finer eateries – with spectacular views over the city – is Perlan (Pearl; Oskjuhlid; +354 562 0200; www.perlan.is). It’s a revolving restaurant built atop six hot water towers. When I asked the waiter how long it takes the restaurant to revolve once, he replied, “A couple of hours, but often we slow it down. At two hours it makes some of the patrons seasick.” The food is top notch here. The 10-course degustation menu lets you sample different Icelandic delicacies (and no whale meat). Sadly, the wines are imported, but the waiter said they’re “working on that”. Iceland isn’t known for its grape-growing prowess – yet. They have, however, mastered greenhouse-grown bananas.
Vegetarians will be happy, too, in Reykjavik. Anaestu Grosum (Laugavegi 20 B; +354 552 8410; www.anaestugrosum.is), off the main shopping street and up one level, is ideal for a quick, peaceful meal. The food is all vegetarian with some unusual and delicious tastes, even for non-vegetarians.
And you can’t leave town without trying the Sea Baron (Geirsgata 8; +354 553 1500; www.saegreifinn.is). It’s a little fishing shack on Reykjavik’s waterfront with lobster soup to die for. Even the New York Times travel section gave owner Kjartan Halldórsson’s bisque the thumbs up. Get there early, as the queue of hungry locals and tourists snakes out the door and down the street on most evenings. If you can’t wait, Icelandic Fish & Chips (Tryggvagata 8; +354 511 1118; www.fishandchips.is) across the road is a good alternative. It's fish and chips with an original and organic twist. The fish is always fresh and they feature the traditional Icelandic yogurt-like skyr in their sauces. No need to book.
There are regular flights from London Gatwick to Reykjavik International Airport with Iceland Express (www.icelandexpress.com) and from Heathrow with Iceland Air (www.icelandair.com).
Where to stay
Iceland has a range of accommodation. Reykjavik’s Art Deco Hotel Borg in the centre of town is stylish and comfortable. Hotel Leifur Eiriksson is also central, modern and good value. If you are looking for comfortable, clean and cheap, the Reykjavik Downtown Hostel offers double rooms as well as 10-bed dorms. It’s in the heart of the city, too.
When to go
Iceland is open all year round; however, weather and hours of sunlight make May to September the best time to visit.
Tours and information
For specialist small-group day tours from Reykjavik: Iceland Horizon (www.icelandhorizon.is). David Wellsbury is a terrific guide who makes the trips personal and good fun.
To watch the whales: Elding’s Whale Watching Tour, Reykjavik Harbour 1; +354 555 3565; www.elding.is.
For more general information about Iceland: Icelandic Tourist Board, www.icetourist.is