ICELAND Geysers, geothermal lagoons, glaciers and Gullfoss waterfall… the land of fire and ice is very hot indeed
Prepare to be amazed by Iceland, the original land of fire and ice, writes Ute Junker.
Don’t let its modest area fool you: Iceland is a destination on a grand scale. With massive glaciers, cascading waterfalls and geysers that shoot high into the air, it could hardly be otherwise. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to discover that in Iceland, it is the small things that make a really big impact.
Take, for instance, the joy of sinking into a naturally heated thermal pool after a day of exploring. Or take that moment when, halfway through a hike, you find your water bottle empty. Nothing beats the simple pleasure of refilling your water bottle straight from the nearest stream or waterfall. Iceland has some of the world’s purest water, pristine meltwater that runs straight down from the country’s mighty glaciers. This is not just an open-air treat: the same glacier water comes pouring out of the taps as well.
These are just some of the little luxuries Icelanders take for granted. Much of the population (123,000) lives in Reykjavik, a lowslung port town where pretty coloured houses line sloping streets. The rest of the country is one huge adventure playground. The closest attractions, clustered together in an area dubbed the Golden Circle, can be done as a day trip and include Geysir, the source of the word ‘geyser’. These days, Geysir rarely erupts but nearby Strokkur makes up for it, shooting a massive plume 40 metres into the air every five to 10 minutes.
From here, it is not far to Iceland’s most famous waterfall, Gullfoss. Iceland has waterfalls like other countries have traffic lights; there are so many that, after a while, you only point out the truly spectacular ones. Gullfoss easily fits this category. Huge amounts of water pour over the two-tiered waterfall: up to 140 cubic metres per second in summer. Veils of spray hover permanently above the falls; when the sun is out, rainbows dance above the water.
A rock and a hard place
The nearby rift valley of Thingvellir is more than just a place of beauty. It is arguably Iceland’s most historic site, the place where Iceland’s national parliament, the Althing, was established
over 1000 years ago. It is also a fascinating geological site, perched on the boundary between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates. The valley itself is formed by the two plates pushing away from each other, and is growing at a rate of around 2.5 centimetres a year.
More wonders lie further afield. The South Shore is known for its stunning black sand beaches and for features such as the Reynisdrangar sea stacks, jagged needles of black basalt rock rising from the sea. Then there is the hidden valley of Thórsmörk, surrounded by a ring of protecting mountains.
This rugged terrain can only be crossed by a Superjeep, which will carry you safely over rocky roads and through the occasional glacial stream.
We stop to gaze at one of Iceland’s impressive glaciers, Gigjökull, before hiking into a series of narrow canyons. Each one has its own charms.
Sometimes we see birds nesting high in the cliff walls; other times we make our way by leaping from rock to rock, scattered over the ground by retreating glaciers. Stakkholtsgjá canyon ends in a small cave where a waterfall tumbles in through a hole in the roof. The light bounces off the mossy rocks, suffusing the cave with a magical green light. On most of these hikes, we don’t see a single other person.
Iceland’s hot spots
Near Thórsmörk we stay at one of Iceland’s most popular hotels. Hotel Rangá has cosy wood-cabin interiors, a reputation as a great spot to watch the Northern Lights, and outdoor hot tubs with naturally heated water.
A late-night soak – under the midnight sun if you are travelling in summer, under the Northern Lights in winter – is an essential Icelandic experience. So too is a breakfast that includes a bowl of
skyr, the tangy yoghurt-like cheese that is one of the country’s national dishes.
Hotel Rangá is not Iceland’s most famous hotel, however. That honour goes to Silica Hotel, perched on a lava field next to the Blue Lagoon, the country’s best-known thermal pool. Shimmering different shades of blue depending on the weather, the Blue
“A late-night soak – under the midnight sun in summer, under the Northern Lights in winter – is an essential Icelandic experience.”
Lagoon is famous for its white silica mud, known for its skin-smoothing properties. Guests at Silica Hotel have privileged access to the Blue Lagoon, but many don’t even take the 10-minute stroll; the hotel has its own lagoon, fed by the same water, which offers a much more exclusive experience.
However, it is worth heading to the Blue Lagoon to eat at its restaurant, Lava. Iceland’s dining scene is underrated, and Lava is one of the country’s best places to dine. The sophisticated menu showcases hero ingredients including tender Icelandic lamb and superb seafood; order the langoustines, if they are available.
01 Soaking up the sights 02 Waterfalls abound © Ragnar Th Sigurdsson/ARCTIC IMAGES 03 The Northern Lights illuminate the sky in winter 04 One of the country’s many natural thermal pools 05 Hallgrímskirkja church stands guard over Reykjavik. Images 01 and 03 courtesy Iceland Luxury. Images 02, 04 and 05 courtesy Iceland Tourism.