Iceland is more than just the neighbour of that much icier and confusingly named subcontinent to its north (Greenland), or an odd little island where trolls, elves and fairies live. If you get past all the negative attention it has received for the 2008 economic crash and the unpronounceable volcano that saw European air traffic grind to a halt this year, you will find in the island a wonderful simultaneous mix of lava and ice, horses and snowmobiles, permanent dark and perpetual sun, serene countryside and the best mix of clubbing venues from both sides of the Atlantic. It’s the ideal retreat for the modern renaissance traveller.
Iceland is surprisingly well-connected. The capital city of Reykjavik is connected to major European cities such as London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Milan, Copenhagen and even Dubai in the Middle-East by Icelandair, the flag carrier.
Planning an itinerary to Iceland is like opening a treasure map of geological wonders. In a group of 12, we made our way around the island in a 4-car convoy. Driving in Iceland is easy, and served by only 1 main ring road. A range of vehicles from regular cars such as Toyota Corollas to rugged 4x4s like the Land Rover Defender are available. Although most tourist locations are reachable by normal cars, inner-Iceland hiking trails require the more rugged vehicles.
Our first stop was to Hvalfjordur, a coastal area situated an hour’s drive from Keflavik Airport and home to beautiful fjords and Iceland’s highest waterfall, Glymur. The name derives from the large number of whales, which were found and caught there up until the end of commercial whaling in the 1980s. While there is a 5 kilometre long and 165m deep tunnel that traverses the fjord, we decided instead to take the more scenic overland route, which revealed volcanic mountains and lush green vegetation. There are small forests, the beginnings of a reforestation programme, of birch and conifers as well as numerous flower and moss varieties surrounding the fjord. It was here that we saw some of the most beautiful horses grazing. Icelandic horses were introduced around 800AD and have only been bred with other Icelandic pedigrees since the Middle Ages. Consequently they tend towards being smallish in stature, curious and benign as well as smooth gaited, making for excellent riding horses for beginners.
Our next stop was to the UNESCO World Heritage Thingvellir National Park. It was here that the cool yet sunny summers inspired Iceland to establish the original outdoor parliament in 900AD. The Drekkingarhylur, or drowning pool, where women law-breakers were once punished can also be found here. Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Thingvellir is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates move apart causing rifts in the land. The rifts are often filled with crystal clear waters. The Peningagjá, or penny canyon, holds the legend that if you throw a coin and make a wish, that wish will come true if the coin is visible from the bottom.
The Icelandic geography is unusually suited for waterfalls, thanks to a combination of rugged mountainous volcanic landscapes, a high amount of precipitation in snow or rain, and glaciers whose summer melts feed a multitude of rivers. Gullfoss, which means Golden Falls in Icelandic, is located just 10 minutes’ drive from the oldest known Geyser (conveniently named Geysir), and is one of Iceland’s most accessible waterfalls. It is majestic and just a short stroll off the main road Approaching the falls, we were greeted with a rainbow contained within the mist generated by the waterfall. And as we got closer, the crevasse into which water pours subsided from view, creating an illusion of a river disappearing into the earth.
Driving further east, we approached the Glacier Mountain Vatnajokull – Europe’s largest glacier mass, lying over several active volcanoes. We made preparations for a picnic lunch at Skaftafell National Park but couldn’t resist stopping instead on a picnic site along the highway where a bridge was destroyed by floods from a volcanic eruption. Metal from the bridge were twisted to form a somewhat artistic structure at the site. A simple fare was made quite complete by the crisp, still beauty of the glaciers. But we were not satisfied with just lunch by the glacier. We hired a driver and guide to take us up Vatnajokull by super-jeep (acrophobics beware) to explore the glacier by Snowmobile. As luck would have it, panoramic views from the top were obscured by a fog although that did not dampen our spirit for adventure.
But things with Glaciers are not as cool as they would like it. Global warming and the accelerating retreat of the Icelandic glaciers has resulted in the creation of Jokulsarlon or Glacier Lagoon, Iceland’s second deepest lake at 200 m. It is a relatively recent feature, appearing only in the last 70 or so years. The black sandy beaches around the lake, the result of glacial retreat, consist of sand and grit so fine that it can be used as a lubricant. The glacial lake is famed for its stunning frozen landscapes and was the site of filming for Tomb Raider, 2 of the James Bond installations, Batman Begins, The Amazing Race and Top Gear. Our ride in an amphibian vehicle around the lagoon reminded us of the fragility of these Glaciers.
Iceland is Europe’s top whale watching location and a trip here should included at least one whale watching cruise. The cruise which we took, departed from the wharves at Reykjavik, and brought us up close to orcas (killer whales), humpbacks, blues, dolphins and porpoises. There is no guarantee, but it is said that the probability of sightings are as high as 98% from northern Iceland. A useful tip given by our guide on the cruise is to look out for flocks of sea birds congregating in an area. This usually means that there is food in the water and whales are hence more likely to be spotted. The various types of whales commonly sighted include mink whales, white-beaked dolphins, harbour porpoises and the popular humpback whales. While we sailed, we were accompanied sea birds the likes of gannets, puffins, guillemots, cormorants, gulls, kittiwakes, arctic terns and many more.
To top off the Iceland-experience, we made a final stop at the Blue Lagoon, which is a must stop for all visitors to Iceland. Traditionally held to be a relief from some skin ailments, the steamy 40°c mineral rich water is a popular relaxation venue. The lagoon is continually kept warm by the output of a geothermal power plant which generates electricity and hot water for the city.