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.

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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.

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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.

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