Collapsed banks, rude locals, an impossible language and less than tropical weather make Iceland seem like the holiday from hell. So what is the appeal?
How did it come to this? A windswept little city, half the size of Norwich and a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, has become my spiritual home. I can’t really explain it.
I’d been dreaming of Iceland since I was a teenager, and when I rocked up there in the summer of 2003 to write a book about Reykjavik, that dream came true. I’ve been going back ever since. Something about the city has had a profound impact on me and it’s had the same hold on countless other writers, artists and musicians in its time too. You’ll know if you’re one of the ones that the country ensnares – it fills your mind, your creative ideas multiply uncontrollably and you find yourself thinking that you don’t ever want to go home. After three months, I practically had to be forcibly removed. It’s like being bewitched.
I found myself spending my days exploring the town and its nearby attractions; the evenings in language school trying to pick up the basics (in a language where the word for cloud is ský, it was going to take dedication); and the nights partying with new friends in the city’s bars.
I partied with club promoters and actresses, beauty contest winners, musicians, archaeologists and genetic scientists – they all had something interesting to say. And as I started to understand the country better, I appreciated what its people stood for. Icelanders are strong but silent. They aren’t given to the niceties in life like us Brits – they will barge you out of a queue without batting a beautiful eyelid. But they know who they are – descended from the Vikings, they’re proud to be different and courageous enough to make that their strength. They’re artistic, creative and intelligent – every young person I met had some connection with the arts scene. And they’ve got a connection to nature that we’ve lost. It feels like their creative fuel. Living among glaciers, under volcanoes, through earthquakes and extreme weather, they have respect for it too.
My best memories of the time spent there all involve nature somehow. Trotting on a fluffy but tough Icelandic pony over the lava fields south of the city is one. Making friends with a rock band in the sauna of one of the city’s naturally-heated swimming pools is another. Relaxing on the thermally heated white sand beach was a weird one, and staying out all night until 7am enjoying the midnight sun and the pounding beats of a great boho nightclub was intoxicating in more ways than one.
When I tell people I’ve been to Iceland, they often say that they’ve always wanted to go. What I’d say to that is: so, go then. It’s never been cheaper, thanks to the calamitous banking climate, and tourism is about the only business that is booming in 2009. There’s never been a better time.
BEST THINGS TO DO
Taste something fishy at Kolaportið market.
Try out the country’s famous Hakarl – rotten shark, served as a delicacy after being disinterred from a six-month stay underground – and pick up some more palatable treats, like licorice or, er, dried cod, which the locals eat like crisps.
Visit Reykjavik’s art galleries.
My favourite is Hafnarhusið by the harbour, a modern art gallery that has cutting edge installations downstairs and a gallery upstairs dedicated to Erró, an Icelandic pop artist whose pictures layer photographs on top of paintings, like a more vibrant Peter Blake.
There’s a lot said about the Blue Lagoon, but for a taste of how real Icelanders live, the swimming pool and new spa centre at Laugardalur Valley can’t be bettered – at a fraction of the price. Join them in the hottest pot you can bear, or just swim lazy lengths in the open air pool.
Take a city walk by the bay.
I love the walk from the harbour, round to the Sólfar statue, a stainless steel skeleton of a Viking longboat pointing out into the Faxaflói bay, framed by white-tipped mountains. The air smells by turns of fish, glaciers and sulphur.
Eat out at a restaurant to impress.
Silfur is the city's hottest restaurant, serving the very best local cuisine – the lamb and salmon are particularly delicious – with show-stopping desserts that spill dry ice all over the designer tables. A five-course menu costs £50 and is well worth it.
WHERE TO STAY
Bijoux but very cool, Home apartments
are right in the centre of the city with designer sound systems, CDs to borrow and a hip young owner to show you round the city. Studios sleeping up to four cost from £135 a night. For a cheaper night's sleep, eco-friendly Reykjavik City Hostel
has dorm rooms from £12 a night.
Icelandair fly from London, Manchester or Glasgow. Or grab budget flights with Iceland Express, flying from London Gatwick.
Pick up a car hire from Avis at Keflavik airport.