Land of fire and ice

Land of fire and ice

One of the planet’s wildest islands, Iceland offers bucket-list adventures that leave
Sarah Duff awestruck

If you ever want to get a front-row seat to the raw power of nature show, you need to book a flight to Iceland. The island, which lies just below the Arctic Circle, is a theatre for impressive natural forces. All over the country, the steaming geysers spurt boiling water high into the air, powerful waterfalls roar down cliffs, waves crash on black beaches, bubbling sulphuric pools release clouds of boiled-egg-scented steam and ancient volcanoes violently erupt. Wherever you are, you’re never far from the action. As well as being jaw-droppingly dramatic, Iceland is also surreally beautiful: the extraordinary land- scape is one of vast ice caps, crevassed glaciers and glittering iceberg-studded lakes, soaring snow-covered mountains and solidified lava fields, empty plains dotted with turquoise pools and towering cliffs looming over the rugged coastline.

For a small country, Iceland is astoundingly diverse, and each area offers different natural attractions. The best way to experience as much of it as you can on a single trip is by travelling right around the island – an easy feat on the 1 332 km-long tarred Ring Road, Route 1, which traces its perimeter.

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101 Reykjavík

Most trips to Iceland begin with an arrival at the international airport in Reykjavík, which lies on the southwest corner of the island. The capital city, while small, is worth an extended stay to visit a few of its great restaurants, local design boutiques and lively bars – make sure you have a White Russian at the Lebowski Bar.

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Adventure time

Iceland is all about the outdoors, and there is no shortage of activities on offer. Just an hour’s drive from Reykjavík, Thingvellir National Park offers an experience to be  had nowhere else: snorkeling or scuba diving in two-degree glacial water in a fissure between the North American and Eurasian continental plates, which you can touch at the same time! Many of the island’s other adventures are also of the chilly variety: strapping on crampons to trek across folds of ice on any number of glaciers dotted about (make your way to the unpronounceable Svínafellsjökull in Skaftafell National Park if you want to see the set for scenes from Interstellar and the world north of The Wall in the well-known Game of Thrones series), and for the more daring, a vertical climb up the ice faces of glaciers. Iceland is also a fantastic hiking destination: the island’s mountains, valleys and coastline are criss-crossed with hiking paths that lead you through completely untouched country.

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Natural splendour

Iceland’s natural treasures are also quite easily accessible for people who seek a little less adrenaline on their holiday break. The Golden Circle, a 300-kilometre loop from Reykjavík, is a good place to start a sedate trip. This drive takes in the stark wilderness of Thingvellir National Park, the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir – a powerful geyser from which our English word derives. Many of the country’s other top sights lie just off Route 1, so it’s simply a question of pulling off to take a scenic interval at places such as thunderous Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss and Dettifoss waterfalls, the black-sand beaches of Vik, and Jökulsárlón lagoon, where you can stand on the shore and listen to the sound of thousands of icebergs bumping into one another with Rice Krispies-like crackles.

Iceland’s geothermal activity causes volatile volcanoes, but it also means there are some more people-friendly wonders on the island in the form of natural hot pools. There are loads to choose from, such as Landmannalaugar over in the Highlands, Mývatn Nature Baths in the northeast, which offers spectacular views over the surrounding volcanic scenery, and in the southwest, the Blue Lagoon is conveniently situated 20-minutes’ drive from the airport. Having a warm soak in steaming turquoise water while sipping an Icelandic beer is the best way to end off your trip before you fly home.

The most mind-blowing thing to see while in Iceland is, of course, the Northern Lights, which are visible in clear night skies during the winter months. You don’t need to do a special Aurora Borealis Safari, just stay in the countryside, avoiding the lights of the towns, follow the forecasts and stay up to catch the performance in the sky.

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Animal planet

Iceland is not all landscapes; there is a small amount of wildlife on the island too. The most abundant animals are the beautiful Icelandic horses, a sturdy, small breed with shaggy coats and thick manes. You can do multi-day treks into the remote Highlands, or an easy ride out from one of the many stables around the island – it’s a great way to take in some of Iceland’s breathtaking scenery.

Surrounded by sea, it’s no wonder that Iceland’s marine animals are an attraction, and you can venture into the ocean thanks to boat-based whale-watching trips from Reykjavík or Húsavík in the north-east, and get a glimpse of majestic humpbacks, blue whales, minke whales, orcas, dolphins and porpoises. Back on land, there are about 3 000 wild reindeer to spot east of the island, as well as Arctic foxes and puffins.

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Country comfort

There are some wonderful country lodges and guest houses scattered around the island to break up the lonely landscapes in this sparsely populated country. Many of them offer cosy rooms, beautiful natural settings and hearty Icelandic cuisine, from freshly caught lobster and smoked Arctic char to skyr for breakfast – a yummy kind of creamy yoghurt-cheese, which many Icelanders credit for their robust health and longevity.

After a long day of driving around and having adventures in the chilly snow, there is simply nothing better than coming back to a roaring fire, a refreshing Icelandic beer – made with glacial iceberg water – along with a delicious, steaming-hot bowl of wild mushroom soup.

Photography: Sarah Duff, Gallo/GettyImages, National Geographic Stock, Courtesy images
June/July 2016

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