A rock and a far place
Stay at a lighthouse in mystical Iceland
As my partner and I sit on the black sands of Reynisfjara Beach, listening to our guide tell the tale of the Reynisdrangar rocks, a 20-strong Japanese photography group wanders past, taking pictures of the other-worldly basalt rock formations, the oil slick-like pewter sea (and finally us) with their telephoto lenses. It is 9pm, and the sun still hangs high in the sky, casting a golden haze over everyone. It is a surreal scene. The rock formations are (the story goes) trolls who waded out to sea to help a distressed ship and were turned to stone when struck by the first rays of sunlight at dawn.
Legends such as these come up often in Iceland. The Sagas tell tales of not only the trials and tribulations of the first settler families but of elves, trolls, sorcery and magic. They are Bible-like in their relevance, used to explain the country’s dramatic landscapes; its glaciers, rivers and volcanoes are woven into folklore.
It seems fitting, then, that our home for the night is in the fairytale-like Dyrholaey lighthouse. Dyrholaey, or “door-hole island”, is so named because of a huge arch of cooled lava that extends into the sea underneath the house. Placed on the edge of a promontory, it’s surrounded by natural assets — the black beach to the east, the Vestmannaeyjar Islands to the west and the Myrdalsjokull Glacier in the north. Puffins fly around at dusk.
It’s the most southern point in Iceland, and for us to be spending the night here is a first. While the lighthouse is still fully functioning, it has never been inhabited, and certainly not on the radar of tourists. For just two months this year, September and October, it is being transformed into boutique accommodation run by a hotel from the nearby town of Vik.
In Iceland to preview what forthcoming guests can expect to experience, our three-day trip begins in Reykjavik, where we take a helicopter flight, despite whipping Arctic winds. Up and away we climb, over the Lego-like houses of the low-rise capital, all primary colours lined in neat rows. Buildings designed to resemble natural forms stand out; we see the stepped frame of Hallgrimskirkja, a jagged, concrete church inspired by lava rock and dystopian in appearance, and the new Harpa Concert Hall, with a facade inspired by the crystallised basalt columns found in Iceland.
We glide northwest, away from civilisation. Rust- coloured lava fields, still dusted with snow in spring, unfurl below and the all-white outline of Vatnajokull Glacier is decipherable in the distance. I see the Iceland of the big (and small) screen through my window as our pilot tells us of the films and television series on which he has worked, flying cameramen around for aerial shots: Game of Thrones, Interstellar, Thor. We land in a crater, geothermal steam enveloping our chopper, and as we step out on to the lunar-like land the sulphuric smell of bubbling geysers is strong. This is the closest I’ve come to the uninhabited plains in the centre of the country. It is hard to comprehend just how isolated we are.
Our subsequent tour by land is similarly spectacular. We spend most of our time on Route 1, the sole ring road circumnavigating the country, although we focus on the Golden Circle loop, where the country’s moniker “land of fire and ice” is perhaps best illustrated. We enter Thingvellir National Park, known not only for the Althing, where parliamentary sessions were held until 1722, but as the site of the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. Nowhere does the sense of Iceland’s intrinsically connected history and nature become more apparent.
From there we veer south, towards the coast, seeing modernist churches surrounded by rolling hills, the farm that signalled the alert when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano
Dyrholaey lighthouse stands on a rocky headland; Seljalandsfoss waterfall, above left; the lighthouse, above right