If lava caving, glacier trekking, canyoning and Northern Lights viewing are on your bucket list, then Iceland is the place to tick them off
On the very first day of 2014, my new year’s resolution came to me as I sat in a darkened cinema enjoying The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Alongside those I make every year (eat less chocolate, get in shape, learn a language – the usual), my cinema-inspired resolution was: go to Iceland.
If you’ve not seen the film (out on DVD on 21 April, FYI), allow me to explain. Walter (Ben Stiller) is an average man who lives a life of adventure – in his head. As his steady but snoresome job at Time Magazine becomes all the more precarious due to new management, life takes him by the cahoonas and, encouraged by lady love interest Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), he finally embarks on a real adventure: a one-man mission to track down the elusive Time photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), which takes him to the furthest flung corners of Iceland, where he jumps from a helicopter into shark-infested waters, escapes a volcanic eruption and does some *seriously* cool skateboarding down a pretty big hill.
While Stiller, Penn and Wiig all give fantastic performances, for me the film had another scene-stealing star: the incredible Icelandic scenery. Previously neglected from my long Places I Must Visit list, all of a sudden I was desperate to, like Walter, scale mountains, breathe in the fresh Nordic air and experience all that this rugged landscape has to offer.
It seems I am not alone. Tourism has recently overtaken farming and fishing – those traditional Icelandic practices, handed down from generation to generation – as Iceland’s number one industry, with a 2013 report showing that visitors had increased by just shy of 20% since 2011. Sadly the report didn’t show what percentage of those additional visitors were Game of Thrones, Thor or Prometheus fans (all feature scenes shot in Iceland too), but it does confirm that a trip to the Nordic country is travel’s hottest ticket.
And so, while my gym card remained largely unused and my language skills improved by precisely 0%, by February I was on a Wow Air flight into Keflavík International, 45 minutes outside the Icelandic capital Reykjavík. Stepping off the plane into near-freezing temperatures, I was pleased I’d made that last-minute dash to Oxford Street (fashion tip: Uniqlo’s HeatTech Ts and Gap’s down jacket will serve you *very* well on a trip to Iceland), but instantly invigorated by the wash of winter sunshine that made everything seem whiter than white, making it difficult to tell where the snow-covered ground ended and the cloud-heavy sky began.
After checking in to chic design hotel Reykjavik Lights (each room is unique, linked to a specific day in the ancient Icelandic calendar and decorated to reflect the spectrum of colours created by the country’s ever-changing light), our first night was spent exploring the city by foot, taking in the impressive sights of Harpa, the modern (and glittering) concert hall, and the church of Hallgrímskirkja, finshing at the city’s old harbour where fishing boats bob in the water against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains in the distance. Here we called into Mar, a cosy-cool restaurantserving Icelandic delicacies with a South American and south European twist, for a well-earned seven-course tasting menu (all that air travel is hungry work, OK?). Given the restaurant’s location right by the old harbour, it’s unsurprising that seafood features heavily; salted cod with tomato chutney, scallops with cauliflower puree and monkfish with parma ham all thrilled the taste buds, as did the meat course, a deliciously tender hunk of rib-eye steak served with potato cakes, and the devilishly good banana creme brulee desert.
The next day the trip got down to business as I joined the group Northern Lights Voyager winter tour with Arctic Adventures, a popular local travel company offering adventures such as glacier hiking, lava caving, white-water rafting and, of course, Northern Lights hunting, all with an emphasis on ecotourism and environmentally friendly trips. Our guide for the trip was Snorri, a young, enthusiastic local guy who I have a sneaking suspicion would happily live halfway up a mountain if he could. As easy-going and good-humoured as he was knowledgeable on each of the natural wonders we encountered (and, as we discovered during our overnight stay in a cabin, a bloody good cook), I cannot speak highly enough of Snorri – ask for him by name.
Having loaded up crampons, ice axes and hiking boots, we climbed into our super jeep (complete with the biggest wheels I have ever seen) and set off into the wilderness. With lava caves, waterfalls, canyons and glaciers all on the menu, the tour is a head-on introduction to the outstanding natural beauty of this volcanic island, and it’s genuinely difficult to pick a highlight from the two-day adventure. Our group’s first activity, which saw us disappearing into a hole in the snow to explore the lava caves of Leiðarendi in the Blue Mountains, is definitely high on the list. Once underground with torches attached to our helmets, we marvelled at the eerie lava tubes, scrambling on hands and knees through particularly tight sections, and sat in absolute darkness while Snorri entertained us with local legends about cave-dwelling trolls (the caves remained largely unexplored until as recently as the 1950s because people were terrified of being eaten alive by these underground beasts!).
Next up was a stop at Seljalandsfoss, an impressive and picturesque waterfall cascading from an overhanging rock that made a great spot to enjoy the chese and ham rolls that Snorri had picked up for us that morning from a local bakery. A little, rather sodden path actually allows visitors to get behind the waterfall à la Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl video (albeit a much colder, more rugged version).
The afternoon saw Snorri masterfully driving the jeep through the craggy wilderness, through fast-flowing rivers and up steep riverbanks, bouncing me and my fellow passangers around with screams of terror-tinged glee. Our final call of the day was the Gígjökull glacier, where we marvelled at its too-beautiful blue colour and ate ‘ice lollies’ – icicles made of meltwater, snapped straight off the glacier itself.
The day ended with an overnight stay at Básar Chalets, a picture postcard-perfect huddle of log cabins surrounded by knee-deep snow in the absolute middle of nowhere (also known as Þórsmörk valley). With two private bedrooms and a dorm in the loft, we enjoyed a comfortable, cosy evening warming up in sleeping bags and reflecting on a busy but brilliant day. It was here that we experienced our guide’s culinary skills, as Snorri whipped up a feast of barbecued pork (cooked in outdoor pits, no less), mashed potatoes and a delicious mushroom sauce made from his own recipe, all washed down with a few glasses of red wine.
Day two brought just as much adventure as the first. Having filled our water bottles in the nearby stream (yes, the water is that clean), we started the day by working off our breakfast of bacon and eggs with a hike through Stakkholtsgjá Canyon, a narrow, icicle-studded gorge that, two kilometres later, ended with us climbing up icy rocks to reach the waterfall at the top. And if that didn’t burn off the breakfast calories, our afternoon activity (after a pit stop at another waterfall – Skógarfoss, this time – en route) definitely did: trekking on and exploring the gullies and caves of Sólheimajökull, an awe-inspiring beast of a glacier.
As the sky began to darken (Iceland gets just four to five hours of sunlight during mid-winter), we whizzed towards Sólheimasandur on the coast, where the shell of a US navy airplane, the vast black sand beach and the crashing of some pretty tall waves gave an other-worldly feel to the end of the day.
With so much day two action, thoughts soon turned once again to eating – and there is no better place I can recommend to end your day than Rauða Húsið (Icelandic for ‘red house’), a charming little restaurant in the small seaside village of Eyrarbakki, where I enjoyed the most incredible fresh-from-the-fisherman langoustine baked with garlic butter.
Aside from lava caves, glaciers and some of the best seafood ever, Iceland does of course have another trick up its tourism sleeve that may account for all those extra visitors: it’s one of the best places in the world to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. As our attempts to see this stunning natural light display during our overnight stay in the Þórsmörk valley had been foiled, Snorri made it his mission for us to see them before the trip was through – and so, following our langoustine feast, the hunt began. Speeding from location to location based on radio updates on weather conditions and prime viewing locations from other Arctic Adventures guides, we eventually settled halfway up a steep hill. And there, as we sat hopefully in the jeep, the lights appeared – an eerie, constantly morphing yellow-green glow that is truly one on the most unique sights I’ve ever witnessed.
The next day, sitting in the airport, waiting to board (with my purse £90 lighter thanks to the amazing Icelandic beauty products on sale in duty-free – I’d highly recommend EDJ’s face oil drops and Soley’s wild herb face scrub), I mentally ticked ‘visit Iceland’ off my list of new year’s resolutions, but it will stay firmly on the one entitled ‘Places to Revisit’. Perhaps by the time I return, I’ll have ticked off the other items on my list and will be able to hike that glacier without wheezing and greet people in their local tongue – although I wouldn’t count on it.
WOW Air operates twice-daily flights from London to Reykjavík on Sunday-Friday, with a daily flight on Saturday. Prices start from £69 one way, including taxes and hand luggage allowance. For more information or to book visit wowair.co.uk. Arctic Adventures’ Northern Lights Voyager Tour costs 119,990 Icelandic Krona (approximately £630) per person, and operates in the winter season (September-April). For all tour options, including summer tours, visit adventures.is. Rooms including breakfast at the Reykjavík Lights Hotel start from £79 in winter season.