travel

Fight­ing off the White Walk­ers and the Amer­i­can tourist hordes, chil­dren’s book au­thor Stacy Gregg goes wild in search of in­spi­ra­tion in Iceland.

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Iceland is so hot right now. Not lit­er­ally hot, of course. The place is an ice­box. From the mo­ment I got here, I’ve been liv­ing like a hu­man pi­mento stuffed in­side a Canada Goose coat. Tem­per­a­tures aside though, it is def­i­nitely the des­ti­na­tion du jour. The coun­try’s 345,000 in­hab­i­tants were out­num­bered a solid 7-1 by the tourists last year.

A large chunk of those tourists are Amer­i­cans tempted by the free Reyk­javik stopover that many US air­lines of­fer on the way into Europe. And top­ping up Iceland’s vis­i­tor num­bers is Game of Thrones.

If you are a GOT fan, you’ll know that sea­son seven was heavy on White Walker ac­tion and that any scene in the hit show fea­tur­ing snow – or in­deed Jon Snow – is shot in Iceland’s na­tional park, Thingvel­lir, which serves as the lo­ca­tion for all that is “Be­yond the Wall”.

Aptly, for “The Land of Fire and Ice”, this lat­est tourism boom has hit just as the pre­vi­ous ones did, as a sud­den and un­ex­pected erup­tion. The first tourism surge came out of left field in 1972 be­cause of a chess tour­na­ment. Boris Spassky v Bobby Fis­cher, a proxy Soviet-US war, with bish­ops and pawns that made a rock star of the neu­rotic-but-dap­per Fis­cher and his will-he-turn-up or-won’t-he antics un­til he fi­nally beat poor Boris af­ter 21 games.

The next boom came in 1986, when, at the height of nu­clear ten­sions, a se­cret sum­mit meet­ing be­tween Mikhail Gor­bachev and Ron­ald Rea­gan was held in Reyk­javik. The sum­mit, which took place in a pur­port­edly haunted house owned by the French consulate, didn’t re­sult in dis­ar­mar­ment, but Gor­bachev later said that the ground cov­ered in Reyk­javik be­tween the two men was the cru­cial mo­ment that sparked the thaw in the Cold War.

It’s nice to think of a time when chess and pol­i­tics could give tourism the kind of uptick that now re­quires a so­cial in­flu­encer in a bikini or an up-the-duff Kar­dashian to achieve.

The boom in 2010 came via Ey­jaf­jal­la­jökull, the un­prounce­able vol­cano. Af­ter cre­at­ing air travel havoc across Europe by spew­ing out so much vol­canic ash that ev­ery­one had to can­cel their easyJet hol­i­days, Ey­jaf­jal­laköll ac­tu­ally caused a pull-ef­fect. The news footage shot over the gla­cial vol­cano looked so dra­mat­i­cally beau­ti­ful that weeks later, when the ash cleared, Iceland’s tourism was on a ver­ti­cal spike.

And now, once again, Iceland is on the re­bound, thanks to the King in the North and a bunch of fur­clad, un­dead flesh-eat­ing zom­bies. Mind you, it’s not hard to see the al­lure of the lo­ca­tion for those GOT film crews. Not only is the land­scape here dra­matic and

to­tally oth­er­worldy, it is dead easy to ac­cess. You can be in Reyk­javik one minute, hav­ing a beer at the ho­tel, and less than half an hour later you’re set­ting up your cam­eras in a snowy moon­scape with no sign in any di­rec­tion that civil­i­sa­tion ever ex­isted.

I’m not here for the White Walk­ers, though. I’m here for the horses. There are 100,000 of them in Iceland. They’re as com­mon here as sheep are in New Zealand, graz­ing the fields be­side the mo­tor­ways ev­ery­where you go. The size of large ponies, they come in an in­fi­nite colour pal­ette and gather to­gether in tight-knit herds, us­ing each other’s bod­ies as a buf­fer against the winds – Iceland is the third windi­est coun­try on Earth.

This is a harsh cli­mate for horses. All year round, the tus­sock grass is scarce and taste­less and the weather keeps the troughs use­less, frozen solid as a le­mon­ade ice­block. The horses drink from cul­verts that run through the fields, but of­ten even these are frozen over and the ice needs to be smashed daily with heavy ma­chin­ery so the horses can drink – oth­er­wise they will roam, parched with thirst, un­til they find run­ning wa­ter.

Ice­landic horses live out­doors all year round. They are never rugged or sta­bled, not even in the dark­est months of win­ter, when there is less than an hour of day­light and the snow reaches up to their bel­lies. They like their free­dom and they are hardy beasts with dou­ble-thick coats. The horses you see graz­ing by the roads now are the same ones the Vik­ings rode. For more than 1000 years Iceland has main­tained a dra­co­nian pol­icy of bio­con­trol on its equine pop­u­la­tion. No horses of any other kind are per­mit­ted to en­ter the coun­try, so there is no in­ter-breed­ing. And a pure Ice­landic, if taken over­seas for any rea­son, can never re­turn.

The Vik­ings brought the first horses here on long boats. For hun­dreds of years they were vi­tal trans­port in a coun­try where the ter­rain made car­riages im­pos­si­ble. Great dis­tances needed to be cov­ered on horse­back and so the Vik­ings bred their mounts to develop a spe­cial pace, the tölt, which no other horse in the world pos­sesses. The tölt is a crazy-fast, high-kneed stride that looks com­i­cal be­cause of its ex­treme speed and the way the rider sits with­out mov­ing. Once you ride it though, you are con­verted and you won­der why you have been ris­ing to the trot all these years when you could have been cruis­ing flat-tack in an equine arm­chair.

So, I’m here to tölt. And to fin­ish the fi­nal chap­ters of my book, The Fire Stal­lion, which fea­tures the Ice­landic horse in a star­ring role. I was plan­ning to come here in De­cem­ber when I first be­gan work on the man­u­script but then I re­alised that De­cem­ber was a dark month – only two hours of day­light each day. Pretty hard to re­search what you can’t see.

In March, the tourism guides say that you’ll still get only four to six hours of light, so I’m sur­prised when we ar­rive that the day­light spans a nor­mal enough 7am to 6pm. It’s still freez­ing though. A warm day is zero de­grees. I’m per­ma­nently stuffed in­side my du­vet-like Canada Goose, shuf­fling like a Miche­lin Man along the Reyk­javik streets. The tourists look like we’re try­ing to con­quer Ever­est while the lo­cal girls skip about in crop tops.

In terms of size, Reyk­javik is like vis­it­ing Auck­land’s Pon­sonby. You can walk the city in a day. There are a cou­ple of not-great gal­leries, a pe­nis mu­seum (blue whale!) and a punk mu­seum lo­cated in a dis­used pub­lic toi­let. In­sider tip: skip the toi­lets, the his­tory of Ice­landic punk is mostly just some name­less guys play­ing back-up and lots of pic­ture of Björk.

The ar­chi­tec­ture is Ty­rolean-meets-East­ern Bloc and most of the ac­com­mo­da­tion here is in the same mode, ex­cept for our ho­tel, The Sand­ho­tel, which is beau­ti­ful. It’s in the main street, but tucked away above an ar­chi­tec­turally geo­met­ric out­door court­yard next to Reyk­javik’s best ar­ti­sanal bak­ery. With their par­quet floors and mar­bled bath­rooms, the rooms at the Sand­ho­tel are su­per-chic in the way that you kind of al­ways imag­ine that your house would be if you ever came on money and were able to dec­o­rate with lots of luxe vel­vets and Katie Lock­hart do­ing your colour pal­ette.

In lieu of ren­o­vat­ing your home, you should re­ally stay here. Ac­com­mo­da­tion prices in Reyk­javik are af­ford­able in gen­eral and you should only need a cou­ple of days in the city, so treat your­self and book a Sand­ho­tel room. For a cou­ple of ex­tra thou­sand krona (like, lit­er­ally, fifty bucks) you can up­grade to a suite.

I say to book a short stay be­cause while the ac­com­mo­da­tion in Reyk­javik is af­ford­able, food and drink are crazy ex­pen­sive. Our pol­icy was to make the trip short but spendy, so we de­voured the de­li­cious free break­fast at the Sand­ho­tel and then sur­vived un­til din­ner­time, when we would break out the big credit card and go to the restaurants in In­gol­fur Square and book a table at The Fish Com­pany. The Ice­landic menu in­cludes in­ven­tive ways with fish you’ve never tried be­fore, like Arc­tic Charr along­side oys­ters and

I’m here for the horses. They’re as com­mon here as sheep are in New Zealand, graz­ing the fields ev­ery­where you go.

Ey­jaf­jal­la­jökull vol­cano, left, first re­pelled then drew tourists when it erupted in 2010, but Stacy Gregg went to see the hardy Ice­landic horses.

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