Land of fire and ice, Iceland is a destination truly deserving of the title 'awesome', ideal for lovers of dramatic landscapes, unspoilt nature, wildlife and above all space
‘Earthquakes are nothing to worry about,’ the airport taxi-driver assured us. ‘Sometimes it is like you’re feeling unwell and the room’s spinning, but then you see that the lights are shaking and you know it isn’t just you!’ He was white-haired, his soft mellifluous English almost perfect, and his stories entertained us during the 45-minute drive through the lava-fields to Reykjavik.
Our teenage sons had complained that we hadn’t been on any interesting trips lately but first impressions were that Iceland was going to be truly awesome. Even the drive from Keflavík Airport took us through the dramatic landscape that is witness to an eruption mentioned in the sagas; the scenery was dotted with huge burst bubbles of magma, and steam rose from the ground. Truly, we’d arrived in the land of fire and ice.
Our touchdown had coincided with storms in the Atlantic, so our first (45 Euro) whale-watching trip took us out on what really felt like the high seas; www.elding.is. Soon we were enjoying up-close encounters with dolphins, porpoises, minke whales and representatives of the summer breeding population of ten million delightfully portly puffins. And after an invigorating battering by sea-spray, we retired to the Blue Lagoon www.bluelagoon.com; 240 Grindavík; +354 420 8800.
Here, come rain or shine, you can float in geothermally heated sulphurous milky-blue waters, lying back admiring skuas cruising overhead and stark hills in the middle distance. I can’t imagine anywhere else in the world where you’d find so many men applying therapeutic silt face masks, or where you’d be allowed to down a beer or hot chocolate while in the pool.
Iceland has the reputation of being expensive and that is still the case, even after the country went into financial meltdown last year. Petrol is one of the few things cheaper in Iceland than in the UK. Unless you opt for a dormitory, accommodation prices are of a similar level regardless of facilities, but you get less for your money the further you are from Reykjavik. Restaurant prices, too, are more competitive in the biggest centres.
The hamlet of Geysir proved to be a good first base on our two-week tour in a hired car (from http://budget.is/gb). We stayed in comfortable and peaceful cabins (15,000 ISK) with Jacuzzis there and made good use of the Hotel Geysir’s geothermal open-air pool and hot tubs. Steam issues from fissures in the hillside and from enticing blue lakes and ochre-porridge mud pools. The atmosphere is so otherworldly, it is easy to appreciate the basis of sagas about elves, lovelings, fairies and magic, people being turned to stone and mysterious happenings from beneath the known world, tales that Tolkien drew heavily from in his writing.
Geysir has given its name to all geysers, and we were mesmerised watching Strokkur fire super-heated water 30m into the air unpredictably every two to 10 minutes. The excellent restaurant there allows you to continue watching while you wait for the cod or lamb to arrive.
The country boasts spectacular waterfalls and from Geysir it is a short drive (or a longer pony-trek) to Gullfoss, where glacial melt-water thunders over chasms to produce rainbows in the water high above the falls.
Tourism in Iceland feels well organised, and any place of interest or viewpoint is highlighted from the road, but with so much space, nowhere did we feel like we were one of many tourists. Our sons were particularly impressed with local tales of bloody murders and also at the range of execution sites and styles: beheading, hanging, drowning.
The awesome forces that have formed this land impressed us too in the Snaefellsess peninsular, as we negotiated basalt outcrops and lava-fields that in certain lights looked like a frozen, storm-tossed sea. And along the spectacularly hewn coastlines, we watched young fulmars perfect the art of cliff-landing, gannets torpedo in or eiders surface-dive for fish. The best nature-watching is from boats out of Stykkisholmur with www.saeferdir.is for 5900 ISK per adult with under 21 year-olds going free.
In Arnarstapi (permanent resident population 10) we stayed at the wonderfully friendly Snjofell guesthouse; www.snjofell.is for 14,200 ISK. The restaurant (which serves exceptionally good food, at 3,500 ISK) is turf-roofed in the traditional style. When we asked about the fish of the day, the owner said, ‘Cod – it is always cod!’ Arnarstapi nestled beneath Snaefellsjokull, the smallest but probably most accessible of Iceland’s glaciers, where snowmobiling trips can be arranged. Up on the mountain, when clouds swirl in, weird outcrops could convincingly be some unfortunate person or creature turned to stone.
Our final stop was in one of several places called Reykholt – meaning steamy or smoky – where for 16,030 ISK we lodged with local academics, drawn to the open-air hot tubs and the mediaeval site of the home of Iceland’s first and greatest saga-writer, Snorri Sturluson. While he lived, though, his reviews must have been poor because he was hacked to pieces in 1241. Icelanders are proud of their traditions and literary heritage, and reading Nobel Laureate Halldor Laxness’s novels give a view of the country that no tourist guide will provide.
Iceland is expensive, the food generally good but plain (main courses tend to cost 3000 - 5000 ISK), and fried cod can seem costly for what it is. The air is fresh and bracing, though, the fire and ice and tortured scenery is spectacular, and there are opportunities galore to entice you outdoors despite a climate that is considerably worse than Britain’s. Go and be invigorated.
Tips and prices
• Prices tend to be linked to the Euro so reflect unfavourable exchange rates with the pound.
• Our airport taxi-driver assured us that tipping was never necessary in Iceland but pocketed the ISK 900 change from the substantial ISK 12100 (£58) fare.
• Accommodation is worth booking ahead because there can be more visitors than rooms.