“There was an earthquake on the south coast last night, 4.0 on the Richter scale. Did you feel it?”
I had actually been in bed at that point of my Iceland trip, but listening to our guide I didn't feel too surprised. Deep cracks in the lava fields outside our bus gave a hint this part of earth wasn't exactly peaceful.
There are 1600 tremors a month on average in Iceland, the only country in the world to sit on top of two tectonic plates. Between quake-triggering continental drift, volcanic eruptions and glacial erosion, you get why Iceland has one of the world's weirdest landscapes: it's forever having a make-over.
What makes for volatile conditions has also created extreme natural beauty, something the country has capitalised on since its financial crash in 2008. Tourism is now Iceland's largest industry, leaving its traditional fishing economy behind. With lures like the northern lights and Game of Thrones filming here, 2014 is the first year Iceland visitors will top one million.
So else what does the 'world's youngest country' have to offer? Well, some bits feel like being dropped on the moon, some like Lord of the Rings. You won't find anywhere else like it in Europe, and that's the allure.
To see the best of this crazy island in a short space of time, I booked a three-day schedule of tours from Reykjavik with Viator. With very little public transport outside the capital (the car-loving population's so small, it's never been warranted), this was the only option for a non-driver - but you can use the routes I suggest if you're hiring a car too.
Follow my tried-and-tested itinerary below to see all the big hitters over a long weekend. Just don't blame me if you want to come back for longer...
Day 1: Geysir and Gullfoss (the Golden Circle Tour)
On the Classic Golden Circle Tour, you’ll think “woah…” so many times, it’s like you’re watching the latest Marvel movie action scene unfold in front of you. This is the big tour that everyone says you should do - and it's worth it, despite the crowds.
Starting at Thingvellir, a rift valley that’s now a national park 45km east of Reykjavik, you cross ground being torn apart by continental drift. Look out over the fissures running through the valley before walking down through the largest gorge, Almannagjá. This is also a historic site where the world’s oldest parliament Althing was founded in 930 (in 1844 it was moved to Reykjavik).
Next stop is Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”), an immense two-shelf waterfall that cuts a 20m crevice into the land. Walk along the cliff top to view from above, or take a staircase down to approach from the river and reach a platform next to where the water drops.
Air gets a little more sulfurous when you meet Geysir on the third stop – a noisy fellow who lives in the ground and spews his guts up every three to five minutes. Yep, the world’s biggest celebrity hot spring performs right on time, every time like a true professional. Cameras at the ready…
After a short stop at Skalholt church, our tour of Iceland’s south-west corner ended at Nesjavellir power plant, where – like 26% of the country’s power – electricity is generated from geothermal energy. You can pay extra to see an exhibition within, but I was contented to stay outside to watch plumes from smoking boreholes drift across the lava fields.
Day 2: Whale watching and the Blue Lagoon
Whale tour from Reykjavik Harbour: Good news: it is ridiculously easy to see minke whales off the coast of Reykjavik. Within ten minutes of our boat slowing down in Faxaflói Bay, we were watching minkes’ sleek blue-black backs cresting the surface, and continued to spot them for around an hour. There’s a 90% chance of catching the whales, and it's also possible to see humpbacks, grey whales, harbour porpoises and puffins (though I didn't on my trip in May).
Not pictured: whales. I didn't get one non-blurry shot.
Blue Lagoon visit: Like approaching a lunar colony’s elite spa, the 40-minute drive to the Blue Lagoon from Reykjavik crosses vast, rubbly lava fields backdropped by a Dali-painting mountain horizon. Adding to the sci-fi feel, it sits next door to the industrial chimneys of Svartsengi geothermal plant.
Outdoor pools are fed by silica- and sulfur-rich water (a byproduct of the plant), with temperatures hovering around 37°C. In relaxation terms it's like getting in a bath you know will never go cold - heavenly. Other swimmers give the experience a pleasantly surreal edge, wavering past at a zombie's pace with faces painted like the Moon. Weirder still, most hold pints of beer from the swim-up bar.
There's a spa attached, but I used the freebies for skin treatments: a 'volcano mud' mask that came with my ticket, DIY face masks using the silica mud from buckets at the side of the pool, and a trip to the steam room. Facilities are clean and modern, and there is a fancy restaurant and less-pricey cafe on site.
When you get out, take a cold shower and give yourself time to relax before moving on. I didn't do this and spent the rest of the day feeling nauseous after three hours in the water (down to the heat and smell of sulfur, I reckon). I'd go again, but this time more prepared for the potential shock to my lily-livered English system.
Day 3: Waterfalls, South coast and Thórsmörk
On day three, our exploration got deeper and more remote. The Thórsmörk and South Coast day trip takes you behind waterfalls, through canyons and along a valley so desolate you almost forget the apocalypse hasn’t happened yet.
Driving east from Reykjavik, the tour van cuts through velour-like moss-covered lava fields and you'll see Icelandic horses on the Hellisheioi plateau, as well as a black sand beach. After passing small towns Selfoss and Hvolsvöllur, your first stop is waterfall Seljalandsfoss. Tumbling from 60m drop, you can follow a rocky pathway right behind the falls.
It’s a 40-minute journey to second stop Thórsmörk nature reserve, as the van crashes through rivers and judders along barely-there tracks in the valley’s volcanic rubble. Three glaciers (including Eyjafjallajokull, whose volcano’s eruption caused that pesky 2011 flights drama) surround you on the cliffs above, and the ground is scorched-earth black. There used to be glacial lagoons here, but after a post-eruption flood the area’s like a Martian wasteland. Stepping outside the van to walk around was one of the most eerily beautiful experiences of my time in Iceland.
Between the extreme weather and volatile earth, there aren't many trees in Iceland. However, the Thórsmörk Mountains further down the valley give this area enough shelter for moss, birchwood and ferns to grow. We spent an hour and a half hiking the green slopes around the campsite drop-off zone, before moving back down the valley to Stakkholtsgja gorge. A canyon cut out of the rock by millenia of glacial erosion, it's a half hour hike to reach a surprise at the end: a secret waterfall hidden within a cavern, and my highlight of the tour.
A final stop on the way back to Reykjavik took us to Raufarholshellir, a lava chute cave used in the filming of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (it doubles as Anthony Hopkins' character Methuselah’s house). The cave creates a tunnel in the earth, letting you hike from one entrance to the other through three chambers lit with natural skylights (ie, holes in the ground above). By this time my legs weren't quite in shape for it, but it was still cool to see a new variation of Iceland's crazy natural phenomena.
You can't spend all your time out in the wilderness. I squeezed in some Reykjavik exploring by wandering around on my day of arrival and eating out in the evenings after tours.
Where to stay: we have plenty of super-cool hostels in Reykjavik, for example KEX and Loft - both are set apart by trendy design and a fun atmosphere, starting at £15pppn. Browse all Reykjavik hostels and guesthouses here.
Eating and drinking: get ready to over-indulge - there are so many quality places to eat in Reykjavik. Kick-starting the dirty burger trend in Iceland, Hamborgarbúllan in Reykjavik Harbour specialises in finger-licking fast food in a pimped-out fisherman's hut, while Sægreifinn (the Sea Baron) next door does a delicious line in fish kebabs served with lobster bisque and beer (Icelandic Gull, naturally). You can try a minke whale steak here if you're curious - but I will judge you.
Head to Foretta on the other side of the street for happy hour cocktails and local-brew beers, and call in another day for dinner - seafood dishes are trendy and modern, and there's an emphasis on good wine. Laundromat is a quirky place to stop for coffee in the town centre, and Micro Bar lets you unleash your inner beer nerd with an all-local tap list and well-chosen selection of bottled imports.
Things to see: climb to the top of Hallgrímskirkja for a bird's eye view of Reykjavik's colourful rooftops. The church dominates the skyline and is designed to resemble lava rock formations - outside, there's a statue of national hero Leifur Eiriksson, who discovered North America in around 1000 AD, 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
Use the Reykjavik Welcome Card for free or discounted entry to museums, galleries and thermal baths, including the Phallological Museum, which has every penis from every mammal in the world on display - yes, really!
Over to you: have you been to Iceland? Do you agree with my itinerary, or did I miss anything vital? Tell me in the comments...
rick baldwin said