Pri­vate Ice­land

mailife - - Contents - By BEN MACK

It was about 10pm and I’d been driv­ing for nearly four hours straight. Sud­denly the car lurched left to­wards what would have been on­com­ing traf­fic, were there any other ve­hi­cles on the road. Try­ing to cor­rect by turn­ing the wheel right, I was sent spin­ning out of con­trol to­wards the edge of a steep cliff. Yikes! Slam­ming my foot on the brake as hard as I could, still the spin­ning wouldn’t stop. Then just sud­denly there was a sharp lurch. Then still­ness, mere me­tres from the cliff edge. Dra­matic as the story sounds, it hap­pens some­times when driv­ing in Ice­land in win­ter­time – at least when driv­ing in a small rental car with­out chains on the tyres. But if you’re ad­e­quately pre­pared, the ex­pe­ri­ence is truly un­like any­thing else on earth. Ice­land’s very name may sug­gest year-round per­mafrost, but the truth is many parts of the coun­try are ice-free, es­pe­cially dur­ing the sum­mer months. Yet that’s when Ice­land can get ex­tremely busy so if you want to beat the crowds, stop by be­tween De­cem­ber and March. One of the best ways to see the coun­try is pre­cisely what I at­tempted to do: a trip around the leg­endary Ring Road (also known as Route 1, or Þjóðve­gur 1 in Ice­landic). Called one of the world’s best drives by the likes of The New York Times and a fre­quent sub­ject of jaw-drop­ping In­sta­gram pics, the road rings the en­tire is­land coun­try. And to say it’s breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful would be like say­ing Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe was pretty. Of course, there are a few things to keep in mind when driv­ing the Ring Road, es­pe­cially in win­ter. It’s im­por­tant to make sure you have a ve­hi­cle suited for ad­verse con­di­tions, i.e. ice or snow on the roads, though it should be noted roads in Ice­land are ex­cel­lently main­tained. You should have some ex­pe­ri­ence driv­ing in poor weather, which can change very sud­denly, and prefer­ably be with some­one else who can drive since dis­tances be­tween set­tle­ments out­side the area around the cap­i­tal of Reyk­javik can be vast. It’s also a good idea to stock up on sup­plies of water, food and blan­kets in case you get into trou­ble, though for­tu­nately road­side con­ve­nience stores and petrol sta­tions are com­mon­place. Be­ing so far north, win­ter also means there isn’t much day­light in Ice­land – mean­ing you need to think about what you plan on see­ing dur­ing the lim­ited time the sun is up. Once you get out­side of Reyk­javik — more dif­fi­cult than it sounds,

con­sid­er­ing the wealth of cul­tural at­trac­tions and things to do nearby such as the world-fa­mous Blue La­goon hot springs – any of the nu­mer­ous rest stops of­fer spec­tac­u­lar vis­tas and are a lot safer than stop­ping in the mid­dle of the road to take pho­tos, tempt­ing as it is. But no trip to Ice­land can re­ally be called a trip with­out see­ing some of the coun­try’s fa­mous wa­ter­falls , which is ex­actly what the Ring Road has in spades. If head­ing counter-clock­wise from Reyk­javik (start­ing by driv­ing south­east), a must-visit is Ur­riðafoss. It may not be the most fa­mous wa­ter­fall in Ice­land, but that doesn’t mean any less spec­tac­u­lar. Like a mini-Ni­a­gara Falls, the sheer vi­o­lence of the water from the Þjórsá, Ice­land’s long­est river, roar­ing into a rocky de­pres­sion can seem over­whelm­ing. They are the largest falls in Ice­land by vol­ume and an in­cred­i­ble place to have a pic­nic or sim­ply re­flect on the won­ders of na­ture. Just be care­ful when open­ing car doors, be­cause the strong wind can break hinges! Ur­riðafoss is also not far from Ho­tel Rangá, which may very well be the cosiest, cer­tainly most lux­u­ri­ous lodg­ings in the en­tire North At­lantic. Claimed to be the only four-star lux­ury re­sort in the South Ice­land re­gion, the log-cabin style ho­tel over­looks the Ytri-Rangá, a river known for its salmon fish­ing. Need­less to say, the rooms ooze rus­tic ro­man­ti­cism, and even if you’re not stay­ing for the night, it’s a stel­lar spot to pop into for a lunch, din­ner, snack or cof­fee while tak­ing in stu­pen­dous vis­tas. Speak­ing from ex­pe­ri­ence, the lightly cured salmon in lemon with smoked trout roe, fen­nel and dill vinai­grette and egg yolk is es­pe­cially rec­om­mended (and one of the most af­ford­able op­tions on the a la carte menu). Oh, and if you de­cide to aban­don your at­tempt to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the Ring Road and spend what­ever time you have at the ho­tel: there’s ab­so­lutely no shame in giv­ing in to temp­ta­tion. If you do make it past Ho­tel Rangá, how­ever, more re­wards await. Be­yond a nar­row bridge (though not one of the many one-lane bridges along the Ring Road; take care and stop be­fore cross­ing those!) is Sel­ja­lands­foss, one of Ice­land’s most fa­mous and most-pho­tographed wa­ter­falls. Look­ing like some­thing out of a fairy­tale, Sel­ja­lands­foss and its 60-me­tre drop has fea­tured nu­mer­ous times on screen, in­clud­ing in The Amaz­ing Race 6 and the Justin Bieber mu­sic video I’ll Show You. Nat­u­rally, it can get packed with visi­tors when the weather is warmer. But in win­ter? There was nary a soul when I vis­ited in the mid-af­ter­noon. Fur­ther down the Ring Road past Ey­jaf­jal­la­jökull, the vol­cano that brought air travel in Europe to a stand­still when it last erupted in 2010, is Vík. The south­ern­most vil­lage in the coun­try (full name: Vík í Mýrdal), the area is prob­a­bly best known in­ter­na­tion­ally for its black basalt beaches, seen in the open­ing scenes of the 2016 Star Wars movie Rogue One. Other ar­eas nearby can be seen in the TV adap­ta­tion of Game of Thrones. Vík is also the largest set­tle­ment for quite a num­ber of kilo­me­tres in any di­rec­tion, mean­ing it has ameni­ties a town of just a few hun­dred res­i­dents nor­mally wouldn’t have. One of those ameni­ties is the Ice­landair Ho­tel Vik. Nes­tled against the side of some dra­matic cliffs, this un­der­rated ho­tel also has a su­perb restau­rant, Berg, that’s sur­pris­ingly cosy de­spite its mas­sive win­dows. A good choice here: a rack of Ice­landic lamb with lo­cal veg­etable ragu and turnip sauce. Above all else, if there’s one thing to know about the Ring Road, it’s this: no mat­ter how much time you give your­self to travel all around it, give your­self at least sev­eral days more. That was prob­a­bly my big­gest mis­take and what nearly led to plung­ing to a fiery (and icy) demise. Un­der a pitch black sky (the famed Aurora Bo­re­alis is only vis­i­ble on some nights), I was just north­east of Vík when I looked down at the clock and saw with a jolt there were only a few hours be­fore my flight out of Ice­land and I’s barely made a quar­ter of the way around the Ring Road. I didn’t feel de­feated, the jour­ney had been so re­ward­ing, the scenery so oth­er­worldly, I knew I’d do it again in a heart­beat. But per­haps mi­nus the whole near-death ex­pe­ri­ence on the way back

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