If it’s not cold enough here in north London for you, consider popping over to Iceland, where in the winter temperatures average about 0°C, and daylight runs for four hours. Its almost treeless terrain, whose vast expanses of mossy volcanic rock are surrounded by snow-covered mountains and thermal pools, plays backdrop to the tiny capital city Reykjavik, an obvious base when visiting.Iceland right now is booming again. The country’s rebound has been surprising, its economy expanding last year at its fastest pace since the 2008 near-meltdown, powered by a rise in exports, tourism and domestic consumption. We learnt how they are starting to harness better use of geothermal energy: one guide told us that they’ve just won a major new contract exporting tomatoes to the UK. And, in general, everyone we met was pretty upbeat about life (as well they might be to tourists).
Anyway, precisely none of this was on our minds after the three hour flight, where we began our break at the Blue Lagoon, a natural geothermal spa as sparkly blue as the photos you see in travel supplements. In fact, it’s quite something to sit in 39 degrees water staring at the surrounding mountains with an ice-cold beer. We stayed for a leisurely three hours, entertained by the wealth of coves to explore, and a small waterfall.Energized, we were now ready to explore Reykjavik, whose clean streets are dotted with boutique shops, bars and restaurants, all within a 15 minute walk. Recommended? A trip to the top of the Lutheran church, Hallgrímskirkja, which in the sun resembles a sand-coloured pipe organ. But many come for the truly amazing views over the bay upon which the city was built. It’s also a wonderful introduction to the chocolate box assortment of Icelandic architecture, ranging from the pretty (Swiss chalet style homes) to the downright ugly (the grey, concrete buildings). To learn more about Icelandic history, a trip to the National Museum is worth it, as is a one hour free city walk run by Goecco every Friday.
Enough of city living now, the wilderness and clean air was what we had come for (ignore the occasional sulphur whiffs). So why not take the famous Golden Circle excursion to Strokkur, Iceland’s most active geyser, the Gullfoss waterfall and a walk through Þingvellir National Park? Or head down to the Southern Coast where you can touch a glacier, explore the beautiful village of Vik and its nearby black beach. Or, best of all, try horse-riding: I’d recommend Islenski Hesturinn, a family run company close to the city. Lovely Begga is your host and she’s funny and informative. We rode across the volcanic, Martian-esque landscape at a tölt (their unique gait) in early morning sunshine.And never did I imagine eating so well. Contrary to popular belief, locals are not sustained by feasts of rotten shark alone – although there are opportunities to try. The food in Reykjavik impressed us, irrespective of budget. For a cheap eat visit Noodle Station which serves generous portions of deliciously spiced Thai noodle broth, with chicken, beef or vegetables (about £6). Equally bargainous (and tasty) was the legendary hotdog from Baejarins Beztu (about £1.60). You will order two; trust me, just don’t expect friendly service, which errs from surly to irascible. Yikes.
For a blowout meal, we enjoyed Sjavargrillid, about £90 for two courses without wine, our highlight a starter of smoked salmon with beetroot and mustard. We were divided about another restaurant, Laekjarbrekka, as my beef brisket was burnt; however, the boyfriend raved about his main course of pan-fried lamb steak with broiled langoustine, ratte potatoes and thyme.
The greatest thing about Iceland? The unexpected. This still feels like an unspoilt, magical place that must be visited at least once – even if you don’t believe in elves and trolls. Yet.
Words & Photos: Kat Hopps