Was it that unpronounceable volcanic eruption that brought Iceland into mainstream travel notice? Or maybe their spectacular banking debacle that created headline news; whatever the reason, suddenly everyone is talking about this latest must-see destination. Old Iceland hands may feel slightly put out as their secret world opens up to so many others, but for the rest of us, what is the fuss all about? I visited for a few days on one of easyJet’s first flights to Iceland and got a brief glimpse of just what makes this country so extra-special.
Iceland’s scenery is starkly dramatic, with vast areas of wilderness, often ice-covered, that create time and space to relax and reconnect with what’s important in life. There are plenty of crazy outdoor activities to satisfy even the most dedicated thrill seeker, including snowmobiling, glacial hiking, ice climbing and white-water rafting. With thousands of sturdy horses all over the island those who fancy riding have plenty of opportunity. The thermal pools, including the internationally renowned Blue Lagoon, provide rejuvenating spa treatments and health benefits. The capital, Reyjavik, has got enough bars and restaurants to satisfy every taste and culture vultures should be very happy as there appear to be concert halls, museums and art galleries on every corner. Icelandic Sagas seem to permeate every inch of the country and every fibre of the quirky, friendly, intrepid people who live in this dramatic island on the edge of the world. And, if you are really fortunate, you may get to see the luminously sinuous kaleidoscope of colour that is the Aurora Borealis …
The Golden Circle
It’s very easy for a first time visitor to get a flavour of the place by doing ‘The Golden Circle’ – a relatively short trip that takes in a trio of the most iconic sights in Iceland. I went on a tour of this area with a charmingly bonkers guide called Villy, who told us mind-boggling stories of evil trolls, malevolent elves and people who went mad on a seemingly regular basis with hardly any provocation whatsoever. the ancient tradition of story-telling is obviously alive and well in this fascinating land of quirky contrasts.
The Golden Circle
The first of the Golden Circle sights is Geysir Hot Springs at Haukadalur, a geothermal area of steaming land and bubbling mud pools. The original ‘Geysir’, granddaddy of all other geysers, is now in retirement but its grandson, Strokkur, sends up a whooshingly spectacular plume of hot water and steam 30 meters into the air every few minutes. Watch out for the intensely blue bubble that bursts just before the jet explodes. Take time to wander over to the colourful sulphur pools, pay homage to the old ‘Geysir’ simmering nearby and discover ‘Litl Geysi’r, merrily hissing and gurgling all but unnoticed beside the path.
A short distance on is one of the most impressive waterfalls in Europe – Gulfoss, the Golden Waterfall. On an L-shaped bend in the Hvita River, the falls cascade in glorious abandon 32 meters down in two stages, hurling out thunderous spray in a permanent cacophony of rainbows and mist. Taking a bit of a scramble, it is possible to get up close and feel the power of nature as well as getting drenched in style.
Driving west through ancient landscapes with ice-capped volcanoes looming on the the horizon, you see the tiny birch trees – more like scrubby bushes – that were the only indigenous trees on this island and meant early Viking settlers had to import all their wood for house and boat building. The final stage of this tour is also the most significant and symbolic to Icelanders. Thingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site close to Lake Ãžingvillaten. For centuries it was the site of the Althing National Parliament and said to be the oldest in the world. The Parliament Fields are situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the continents of Europe and America are slowly but surely drifting apart, causing all that volcanic and earthquake activity. Wander around this evocative park and take time to stand and stare at the crystal clear waters and vibrantly green moss that clings to the old lava rocks.
If you get time, have lunch at Lindin Bistro at Laugarten; it’s a Michelin starred restaurant without attitude – just excellent local produce and seasonal specialities prepared and presented with care and love. The bread is baked in the ground by the nearby hot springs and their lobster bisque is divine. Such a meal gives you extra energy for Iceland’s Golden Circle tour.
I stayed at the lovely 4 star Hotel Borg in the heart of Reykjavik, on the main square, close by all the bars, restaurants, port and cultural sights. I loved the art galleries and museums which encapsulate the diverse culture, history and contemporary identity of this compelling country. Off the coast is the tiny island of Videy, with Iceland’s oldest stone building and Yoko Ono’s ‘Imagine Peace Tower’
Now it’s even easier and cheaper to get to Iceland from Europe as EasyJet has opened up a new route bringing in welcome visitors to experience these sights and so much more. It’s a fascinating country that truly deserves the word ‘unique’ – go and see for yourself just how very quirky and special it is!