Spirit of adventure is erupting in Iceland
The landscape may be barren but you’ll never visit a place where Earth feels so alive
The glacier at Langjökull, which tourists can explore.
‘Ah you are from Ireland. Here we say we are all descended from Brian Ború – we stole his daughter.” All of a sudden the penny dropped. Our Icelandic tour guide had unexpectedly explained one of the biggest conundrums of the modern age – how a member of the Nordic Council, that famously egalitarian and determinedly unshowy club of countries, could have gone on a borrow-and-splurge spending spree equal to, well, our own. It’s because they are our own.
All those jokes about the difference between the two countries being one letter and six months were truer than we knew.
Although I couldn’t find any evidence to back up the Brian Ború bit I did discover Iceland’s population is descended not just from the Norwegian outlaws who settled here over 1,000 years ago, but the Irish sex slaves they picked up along the way. So, at last, it all made sense. We didn’t just cause one financial meltdown, we caused two.
There’s no doubting our Icelandic cousins have had it tough in recent years. No sooner did the country go into financial meltdown than one of its most unpronounceable volcanoes erupted. You still see the t-shirts: “Don’t mess with Iceland, we may not have cash but we have ash.” Given that they managed to down air traffic across an entire hemisphere, they have a point.
The irony is that from a tourism perspective, the volcano put Iceland on the map. The further irony is that if you’d any money to invest, you’d build hotels here. They haven’t half enough.
We visited in dark and wintry November and the city was heaving. And rightly so – though it’s hard to think of somewhere cold and rainy being exotic, that’s exactly what Iceland is. Reykjavik itself is like an old frontier town, with the utter pleasure of a main street devoid of a single international retail chain.
Instead it’s a quirky mix of book shops – Icelanders read more books than anyone else – boutiques and art galleries, sprinkled with vintage clothing and second-hand stores. Every second building is a pub or restaurant and locals don’t come out to play until midnight. Why not, when it’s still night time at 10am next day?
It’s amazingly village-like for a capital city, even for a country with a population of just 325,000 people. Who knows how its tiny centre copes in summer, when visitors get way more bang for their buck thanks to almost permanent daylight.
Reykjavik, cute though it is, with its corrugated iron shop fronts and cosy basement bars, is really a base from which to make sorties to its amazing interior. For a travel destination that sounds custom made for the independent traveller, it’s actually all done with military precision.
A fleet of minibuses drives around, constantly picking up hotel guests and bringing them to a central bus station where a bigger fleet awaits. Passengers are endlessly decanted from one to the other and swept off to various geological sites.
In summer you can hire a car and circumnavigate the island – there’s just the one ring road – but in winter that’s not really sensible. So just sit back and enjoy the ride. The views are spectacular. A visit to Iceland is like being immersed in a 3D geography lesson. It rumbles and vents like a land-locked whale. The landscape may be barren but you’ll never visit a place where Earth feels so alive.
The big draw in winter months is the chance to see the Northern Lights. Of course, you shouldn’t build a holiday around seeing them because there’s no guarantee you will – though you will be guaranteed to meet at least half a dozen people telling you you should have been there last night because they were brilliant. But even travelling out into the vast darkness of its starry skies in the hopes they will perform is an excitement in itself.
The tour we took, Warm Baths and Cool Lights, meant that even if we didn’t get to see the Aurora Borealis in all its glory, we had the no-less-wondrous experience of sitting in steaming volcanic baths, lit by flaming torches, under pitch black skies – and sub-zero air temperatures. It’s a remarkably invigorating combination.
By day you can take tour buses to see the famous Blue Lagoon, slathering yourself in mud and ordering drinks from a swim-up bar while their air temperature hovers at a less-than-balmy zero. Even in summer, temperatures only average early teens. But then you’re never going to Iceland for the weather.
Some of the most popular tours are its whale watching boats, most of which go from the old harbour in Reykjavik.
Summer is the best time to see the 20-odd species that live here, including Minke, Blue and Humpback. These tours run through much of the winter now and while the chances of seeing the main attraction are lower, there are still good opportunities to see dolphins and porpoises race alongside you. The guides here ask you not to eat whale meat while you’re in town. In fact, they ask you not to even eat in restaurants where they serve it. Apparently eating whale meat is not an Icelandic tradition at all – almost all of the whale meat hunted here goes to Japan.
The newest attraction is perhaps the most spectacular of all, even to get to. Into the Glacier is a chance to walk deep inside a man-made tunnel in Langjökull, a few hours north east of Reykjavik.
One of Europe’s biggest glaciers – its name translates as ‘long glacier’ – getting there is an adventure in itself. It takes about 2½ hours by bus from Reykavik just to get to the starting point, where you change into snow gear provided for you.
From there you clamber into giant snowmobiles, former missile launchers from somewhere in eastern Europe, that carry you first up to ‘base camp’ – last chance to use the loo – and then on up to the glacier proper, which takes another hour. There are no roads, obviously, so it’s as close to being in National Geographic as you can get. You almost expect to pass David Attenborough crouched with a camera crew as you ascend. The snow is so white it’s blue and when the sun shines, as it did spectacularly the day we visited, the entire glacier lights up like a mountain of diamonds. It’s quite spectacular.
The tunnel itself was designed by engineers but locals, frustrated with the time it was taking, decided to build it themselves, experimenting with their own drill bits on tractors, said the guide, proud of their Icelandic resourcefulness. The entire, admittedly exhilarating, venture sums up Iceland perfectly – they do their own thing up here. And now we know why.
HOW TO ... ICELAND
GO WOW Air (wowair.ie) has direct flights between Dublin and Reykjavik twice a week (Oct to April) expanding to four times per week in the summer months. One-way fares from €79.
STAY The Foss Hotel Reykavik (fosshotel.is) is the largest and most swish of an Icelandic chain. Rooms from €366 for two for a weekend in June.
DO Reykavik Excursions (re.is) runs bus tours all around the country from its central bus station. Blue Lagoon Tours start from 9,200 ISK (€65). Into the Glacier (intotheglacier.is) costs from 17,900 (€127). Whale watching costs from 9,000 (€64 – elding.is).