Trevor Claringbold joins Easyjet on its inaugural flight to Iceland and experiences the Golden Triangle, Reykjavik and Iceland’s many volcanoes.
It was April, and the winter snows were melting fast. Contrary to what most people imagine, Iceland is not frozen under a blanket of snow for half the year. Instead, much like Britain, the snow comes and goes sporadically throughout the winter, with only the highest areas retaining a covering for longer periods. Even here, as we soon discovered, it was disappearing rapidly. As we mounted the two-man machines, and the guides gave us instructions before breathing life into the ear-splitting engines, we were warned to follow the lead snowmobile’s tracks exactly, as there were certain areas that suddenly plunged down into icy cold water. I was the passenger, concentrating on making the most of this dramatic scenery that was speeding past me to get some atmospheric action photos.
After coming to terms with the initial pain and shock, and having my leg strapped up, my concern was how I would cope with the remainder of my fairly hectic and energetic visit. However, from this point on I realised that, in a bizarre way, having to limp around Iceland at about half the speed of your average tourist, did have the distinct advantage of forcing me to take my time and see far more.
And without a doubt, Iceland is a country that needs to be seen. I have been fortunate enough to visit more than 60 countries around our planet, and nowhere, absolutely nowhere, is anything like Iceland.
The day had started well, with a pleasant early morning flight on easyJet’s new Luton to Keflavik service. In less than three hours we were exiting the smooth, relaxed airport on the edge of the Arctic Circle.
From the moment you arrive, the rough black volcanic landscape stretches for miles in every direction. As you drive across it, the realisation dawns that what you are actually surrounded by is all created by molten lava, that has been thrown out by one of Iceland’s many active volcanoes. But while this does lead you to keeping one eye on the steaming summits, strangely I never felt unsafe during my stay.
Once the initial amazement has subsided, and the various comparisons to a lunar landscape, or a sci-fi film set have been aired, then other aspects become noticeable. The lack of trees is weirdly uncomfortable, coming as I do from the Garden of England where it’s hard to find a vista that doesn’t include a tree – even in the towns. As we travelled around the south western peninsular of this desolate isle, even bushes are rare. But then, I explained to myself, how would they grow on a bed of rock?
Another common misconception about Iceland is that it is just a small island in the North Atlantic. It’s not. Compare it by area, and it’s not vastly different to that of England – if you cut off Wales and Scotland. When you then realise that the population of Iceland is only around 300,000 – and 200,000 of those live in the capital, Reykjavik – and you’ll get an idea of just how sparsely populated it is.
A vast area in the centre is covered with glaciers, which in turn lead to immense rivers and waterfalls. Gorges have been cut and shaped by the ice over the centuries, creating some intriguing natural art formations. Check out the vast Gullfoss waterfall, where tons of water every second plunges into the deep canyon below. The natural forces have been kind enough to create a wonderful viewing platform in the heart of the falls, giving an awe-inspiring, if somewhat damp, feel of the unstoppable power surrounding you.
But of all the natural wonders, it’s probably the geysers that Iceland is best known for. Indeed the original Geysir, from which all other derived their names, is one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions. It amid a glistening, lava stained rock slope, which leads up from the inevitable (but actually very good) gift shop. There are various small pockets of water bubbling from the ground, like an eco-friendly witches cauldron. Multilingual signs warn of the dangers from the boiling water and spray, as you lead up to the larger spouts. In fact, such is the height that these impressive jets reach, when they soar into the air every 5 minutes or so, that by the time the water falls to the ground it is cool enough to be safe. They are a truly magnificent spectacle, no matter how many times you see them, and an awesome testament to the power that Mother Nature is restraining just below our feet.
Although the landscapes and natural wonders are a must for every traveller here, it’s also worth making sure you leave time to take a look around the capital too.
In the same way that Iceland is a most unusual country, Reykjavik is far from a typical capital city. There is no real bustling centre, no mass of high-rise offices, and no traffic jams. It has the feel of a pleasant provincial coastal town, with a quaint old-town area near the harbour, characteristic pastel coloured buildings, and a neat, clean appearance.
Indeed, such is the population’s comfort with the period feel of their city, that there were considerable protests against a new, ultra-modern dockside concert hall and conference centre. The Harpa Centre was eventually built, however, and its glass-honeycombed exterior is now a significant landmark on the ancient quayside.
By most European standards, hotels in Reykjavik are not expensive. The Hotel Borg has an air of calm elegance, overlooking square of Austurvöllur, in the heart of the city. The Art Deco styling disguises the slick, modern amenities, giving the impression of a quality period hotel in which everything works seamlessly. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, and it’s the perfect base for sightseeing. Laying just across the Square from Althingi, the Icelandic parliament, and the cathedral, it’s also within easy walking distance of many good shops, bars, and restaurants. If it’s culture that attracts you, then the museum and art galleries are also close by.
If you’re looking for the ‘in’ place to hang out, then just along the coastal road is Kex. It’s one of those rare trendy places where nobody feels uncomfortable, or that they don’t fit in. Kex is a bizarre mix of youth hostel, bar and restaurant, where the food is first rate, and you can also have your hair cut in the bar-room barber shop!
The one must-do excursion, however, takes you around 40 minutes out of the city, to the unbelievably enticing geothermal spa of the famous Blue Lagoon. The six million litres of creamy pale blue water is naturally heated to around 38 degrees, and has been voted ‘The Best Medical Spa in the World’. Just to relax, and float in the mineral-rich waters, with the steam caressing you as it wafts its way heavenwards, is the closest thing to bliss you can imagine. There are, as you would expect, a whole range of treatments available too. And if all that goodness is getting a bit much, then you can always redress the balance with some serious over-indulgence at the Lava Restaurant.
Sadly, still nursing my bandaged leg, I wasn’t able to make the most of the Blue Lagoon. But as I said, it was an injury with benefits, because now I have the perfect reason to return and spend even more time in this weirdly captivating land. Iceland may not be the first place that comes to mind, either for a short break, or a longer stay. Yet with some great deals now on offer, there’s never been a better time to find out just what you’ve been missing.
101 Reykjavik, ICELAND
Tel: (+354) 551 1440
Dignified and imposing, Hotel Borg overlooks the beautiful square of Austurvöllur, in the heart of Reykjavík, across from Althingi, the Icelandic parliament and the cathedral. The Borg, which has become one of Reykjavik’s landmarks, is conveniently located within walking distance of variety of restaurants, businesses, souvenir shops, art galleries and specialty shops. The hotel’s 56 rooms and suites, with Art Deco style throughout, are elegantly appointed yet offer an extensive array of modern amenities.
The Silfur restaurant in Hotel Borg, offers exquisite Icelandic cuisine served in beautiful and stylish surroundings, along with a café and bar.
240 Grindavik, ICELAND
Tel (+354) 420 8800