"Why Iceland?" was the reaction of all of our friends. We had no real answer - just an unexplainable attraction. Having just returned, we now have hundreds of answers to the question
Iceland has been thrust into the glare of the world's media during the last few weeks due to the eruption under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier that brought European air traffic to a standstill, leaving thousands of tourists stranded. We left Iceland a few days before the large cloud of ash was ejected from the volcano, which meant we were lucky enough to be in the country during the eruption but back home before that same eruption stopped all flights.
Day 1 - Reykjavik to Hella
Flying with Iceland Express, we arrived at the very "IKEA" Keyflavik Airport (located 40km outside of Reykjavik). We hired a car via holidayautos (www.holidayautos.co.uk) and received an upgrade on arrival. The attendant was very friendly and spoke excellent English (as did everyone we met).
All of Iceland’s roads are numbered, so all we had to do was follow Highway 1 from Reykjavik towards Hella and our first accommodation - Hotel Ranga (851 Hella). This 4* hotel may not be cheap (we paid 90,000 ISK for two nights), but it certainly is worth every penny!
Styled like a hunting lodge, it is flanked by a river to the south and the now infamous volcano to the north. It blends seamlessly with the flat and endless wilderness of the surroundings. Due to the current eruption, a steady plume of ash was visible from the hotel and the volcano provided an exciting backdrop to dinner!
We were upgraded to a deluxe room. The very friendly receptionist asked for our patience while she confirmed the room had been cleaned adding, “It’s worth the wait”. And it was, with a jacuzzi bath, massive bed, sitting area and French doors to a terrace that faced the river. One night we wrapped up and lay on the terrace, scanning the night sky for a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. We weren’t so lucky, but the hotel is regarded by many as the best place in Iceland, if not the world, to see the Northern Lights.
Day 2 - Activities around Hotel Ranga
Helicopter flights over the eruption are operating from the hotel at a cost of roughly £200 per person and tours in a Superjeep are also available for a close-up look (www.icelandrovers.is; www.superjeep.is). For us, the cost was prohibitive. We would have driven ourselves closer, but the terrain is not for amateurs and many tourists have needed rescue from the glacier. If seeing the volcano “up close” is a must then go with the professionals – don’t risk it yourself.
The hotel has several hot tubs. With the water at 38C and the night time air temperature at 4C it was a surreal but sublime experience. A rain shower somehow made it even more special. The addition of the Northern Lights would have made it the night of a lifetime. It still comes pretty close.
The hotel restaurant deserves special mention. Main courses are typically 15,000 ISK per person, which isn’t cheap. But having tasted the tenderloin of beef, the price seems very reasonable! It was perfection: beautiful presentation, fantastic taste. The whole dining experience was first class – the welcome, the staff, the food and the atmosphere. People drive from Reykjavik to eat there, and it is easy to see why.
Sight-seeing is easy in the hotel’s vicinity. From the black sand beach at Vik (stop at Hotel Lundi for a snack) to the waterfalls at Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss. When we visited Seljalandsfoss, the spray had frozen. This made magical pictures, but did stop us from walking behind the falls (one of the main attractions). The beauty of these attractions is that they are all easy to find on Highway 1, although a good map is also helpful.
Day 3 - The 'Golden Circle'
Heading back to Reykjavik, we visited part of the famous “Golden Circle” tour. The first stop was at Geysir, famous for its erupting water jets. The site itself is out of this world – besides the geysers there are mud pots, steam vents and vivid blue, orange and yellow stained earth. It’s a must see.
After Geysir was Gullfoss – a double drop waterfall that can be viewed from a viewing platform or from the rocks at the mid-point of the falls (if you don’t mind getting wet). The sun broke through the cloud revealing a rainbow in the spray. The cafeteria at the visitors centre was a good place to dry off with a cake and a cup of tea.
Extreme relaxation - the Blue Lagoon
Our final night was spent at the Blue Lagoon. We stayed at the Blue Lagoon Clinic – an ultra sleek spa/treatment extension of the lagoon (240 Grindavík). The minimalist style fits well with the metre-high, moss-covered lava fields surrounding the complex. The light blue hot water pools complete the childhood dreamscape of alien vistas and foreign worlds.
Accommodation at the clinic is good value (we paid 35, 300 ISK for one night) and includes entrance to the Blue Lagoon (usually 6,300 ISK for adults). The advantage of staying so close to the lagoon (it’s a five minute walk) is that you can go early or late in the day, avoiding the tourists. The experience of visiting the lagoon is without parallel, and you really have to see it to believe it.
Due to the lack of cleaning chemicals, hygiene at the lagoon is taken very seriously. It is mandatory to shower naked before going in. A helpful diagram makes it clear what areas need particular attention!
The clinic also has a lagoon, reserved for guest use between 8 and 10 morning and evening. Personally, I think this is even better than the Blue Lagoon as it is more natural, quieter and you can bathe after dark.
The other accommodation near the Blue Lagoon is the Northern Lights Inn (Blue Lagoon Road, 240 Grindavik, Iceland; +354 426 8650; http://www.northernlightinn.is). Having viewed it from our accommodation, it seemed very close to the geothermal energy plant that shares the site, which may spoil the outlook.
After a morning dip in the clinic’s lagoon, we just had enough time for a very quick visit to Reykjavik itself. If you find you’ve only got time to visit one place in the city, definitely go to Perlan. The site stores the water for the city, but it also has a visitor’s centre with a great café, restaurant and viewing balcony. Lots of the locals were enjoying a lunchtime snack with their families and it felt like a space the locals were proud of – a feeling that we got everywhere on our trip.
All the Icelandic people we met were incredibly friendly and would always take the time out to recommend places to visit or even just to chat. This spotlessly clean, efficiently run and well maintained country with the breathtaking, sometimes surreal and always awe-inspiring scenery was a fantastic holiday destination.
We’re planning our next trip there. When are you going?