Iceland is an island set at the juncture of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. It’s directly south of the Arctic Circle and east of Greenland. If that makes it sound like it’s miles from anywhere, it’s only a three-hour flight from London and five-and-a-half from New York, so quite convenient for city breaks, then.
It has a dramatic volcanic landscape of geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, glaciers and black-sand beaches – basically a comprehensive geography lesson all in one country.
The island is 103,001 square kilometres in surface area and has a total population of around 328,000. To put that into some sort of perspective, England has a surface area of 130,395 square kilometres and a population of just over 53 million. So if you live in Iceland you’ll be sharing a square kilometre with just less than two other people – in England you’ll be living side by side with around another 419. I love maths.
All of these wonderful statistics show that a lot of Iceland is uninhabited, with around two-thirds of the population living in the capital. Reykjavik is the most northernmost capital in the world and runs totally on geothermal power – well, if you’ve got all those natural resources you really should put them to the best use.
It’s a picturesquely colourful city surrounded by mountains in the distance. And it’s obviously quite small, so you’re in for some wonderful wandering. There are few high rises, lots of boutique and souvenir shops and, even better, a wide choice of bars, coffee shops and restaurants. Apparently there are around 180 licensed bars in the city and I’ve heard it has a hectic night life (though I haven’t experienced it myself…yet).
It’s easy to find your way around, just don’t try to pronounce any of those streets names, Icelandic is a hard language to get your tongue around. Don’t worry though, everyone speaks perfect English.
It’s also a city of sculptures, there’s something to peruse around every corner. I particularly loved The Sun Voyager (Solfario), the amazing skeleton of a boat set on Reykjavik’s pond-still shore overlooking snow-capped mountains in the background.
After a good meander around Reykjavik I headed to my home for the weekend Hotel Ranga (more of which in a later post), a few hours south of the airport. Just keep looking out the window and taking it all in, you’ll probably never see anything like it again – like the amazing lava meadows where moss grows on lava that’s spilled out of the volcanoes. Don’t search for trees though, there are no forests in Ireland – one local told me if you see two trees together, that’s an Icelandic forest!
Breathtakingly beautifully stark landscape unfolds until you reach a charming log-built building set on the River Ranga. It overlooks the famous (infamous) Eyjafjnallajokull (try pronouncing that…the locals will wish you luck) which erupted in 2010. The resulting ash cloud brought European air space to a standstill for nearly a week. Iceland has more than 20 active volcanoes which sounds pretty scary to a Londoner like me, but it doesn’t seem to faze them – and of course with today’s modern technology, eruptions can be accurately predicted. Earthquakes are even more frequent but don’t worry you won’t even feel most of them.
From our lovely base at Hotel Ranga (an oasis of peace and warmth) where we delighted in the most amazing food (again more of that in a later post), we set off to explore the Golden Circle.
The Golden Circle is a route of around 300km which takes you through some of the most spectacularly different scenery you’re ever going to see.
First stop the majestic Pingvellir National Park (Game of Thrones is filmed here). You can go scuba diving in the lakes of perfectly clear water which has come down from the mountains, taking 50 years to get there. Not without a wetsuit though, it’s always icily cold.
You can also take a lovely long walk through vast and overwhelming territory. Iceland’s the only place I’ve been (so far) where I felt so overawed by the amazing natural wonders. It’s dramatically, gaspingly beautiful. And there’s plenty of history and geography to amaze at too. Alpine, the Icelandic parliament was founded here (yes they held it outdoors) in 930AD. It’s said to be the first parliament ever.
Iceland is a land of fire and ice (as you’ve probably gathered) – it straddles two tectonic plates – the North American and Eurasian Plates. The two continental shelves are moving apart, slowly of course, and looking at the landscape you get a real feel of that power.
There’s also plenty of local legend to absorb on your journey. Icelanders really tell a good story, be prepared to be scared by ghosts and entranced by elves. Some of the stories are pretty brutal. Women condemned as witches were put to death here in the Drowning Pond and people found guilty of crimes (which they sometimes hadn’t committed) were banished into the wilderness – and it’s proper wilderness.
Next stop is the awe-inspiring Gullfoss waterfall (it means Golden Falls). I can’t do it justice with words, hopefully my picture can do it for you. In April there was still a lot of snow on the higher slopes, the whole waterfall freezes over, I mean totally solid, in the winter. It’s obviously called Iceland for a reason. There are plenty of other waterfalls to explore, including some you can walk behind and you can also tour a volcano. Put me down for that!
So far we’ve had tectonic plates, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, history and magical story telling to take in. Now it’s time to head for the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur with its geysers. The two main ones are called Geysir and Strokkur. Geysir is quiet these days but Strokkur erupts every five to 10 minutes.
On a decidedly chilly April day we stood by the bubbling pool waiting for action. The freezing wind down from the glacier (yes there are glaciers, too) bit through my five layers of clothes (including two hoods) as the minutes ticked by. And suddenly there it was with an almighty woosh. One of the most unexpectedly amazing sights I’ve ever seen, even if my iPhone died, temporarily of course – as did everyone else’s – too cold for iPhones there, then.
Our journey through the wonders of the Golden Circle was even more fun as we did it in a Super jeep. The best way to travel in Iceland – and the only way in winter when the country is covered in snow and ice and doesn’t have much daylight. The contrast of the seasons mean that for two to three months of the year there’s pretty much continuous daylight while winter is dark and seriously cold.
With such dramatic landscapes, unpredictable weather and a lot of darkness it’s not surprising that you’re told myriad ghost stories and start to believe them. And another mystical side of Iceland is that most Icelanders believe in elves. You’ll sometimes see little elf houses built into rocks. It’s a totally uplifting concept, I could do with some elves in my life.
This is a totally unique country. Even their horses are unique. They’re smaller and hardier than average and have five gaits unlike the typical three of other horses (walk, trot, canter/gallop), making them sure-footed over rough terrain. They live outdoors year round and have a double coat developed for insulation in cold temperatures. They need it! You’ll often spot them as you travel around.
Of course Iceland is famous for viewing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). I was under the impression they only happened at certain times of the years but it seems it’s totally random. And in fact they happened the night before I got there, what a narrow miss and also the perfect excuse to go back!
Because Iceland is awesome. Totally awesome. For once I don’t feel like I’m over-using the word.
Read more about the fabulous food of this unique country by clicking here.