Iceland is like one of those last great frontiers. Going there doesn’t feel like being a tourist. It feels hard core, as if you are channelling your inner Polar explorer, a modern day Nansen.
Known as the land of fire and ice, it sits neatly on the icy edge of the Arctic Circle while perched on top of one of the most magnificently active volcanic areas on the planet. Once it was a destination for wandering Vikings, now we are drawn, like its increasing visitors, to its incredible landscape, shaped by giant tectonic forces, magma and lava. We want to see its rugged landscape, spouting geysers, cosy hot springs and dancing Northern Lights.
When you step off a plane here you feel like you should be moving in slow motion with epic music playing, wearing explorer sunglasses. This is odd because the capital, Reykjavik, is a neat, colorful, efficient, pocket-sized seaside city which is home to 130,000 people. It is also the cleanest, greenest city on the planet – harnessing its bubbling geothermal activity to create its own power – and the safest city in the world.
But it is a gateway to epic natural wonders, many of which can be seen within a couple of hours’ drive.
In fact, Reykjavik makes a great base, even if your intention is to head out of town every day to see the best of Iceland’s fire and ice attractions. Most day trips are serviced by tour companies that pick up from city hotels. But it is also an easy self-drive, and there are many options for accommodation from camping and cabins to full-blown luxury as you explore Reykjavik’s surrounds.
The first place on our list was the Blue Lagoon, 50 minutes from Reykjavik. The name might conjure up white sands and palm trees, but this is so much cooler.
Set in the jagged black volcanic rock of a mossy lava field, this spa-side geothermal lagoon offers gently steaming turquoise sea water the temperature of the average bath, some 37 to 40 degrees Celsius. Stepping out in swimwear into that bleakly dramatic landscape feels foolhardy, until you slip into waters that are believed to have healing powers, although this is not a natural hot spring, but fed by the waters of the geothermal power station nearby.
Blue Lagoon is a great place to watch the Northern Lights. The spa has two hotels and they will wake you if the lights begin their swirling, colourful dance on the horizon. There is also accommodation in Grindavik. The lights are best seen with minimal light pollution on clear nights between August and April, and there are many good spots to see them, and multiple tour options from Reykjavik.
Heading north-west from Grindavik, or an easy 50-minute drive out of Reykjavik, is the Strokkur Geysir, in what is known as the Golden Circle. The granddaddy of all geysers, it shoots spouts of steaming water 30 metres into the air, roughly the height of a seven-story building.
In the strange, bubbling thermal wonderland along the Hvítá River there are 100 smaller geysers. The Golden Circle also boasts the Gullfloss Waterfall, 90 minutes out of Reykjavik, where the Hvítá River tumbles in a powerful series of cataracts down three mighty steps into a canyon as it rushes towards the sea.
Heading back towards the city is the Thingvellir National Park, a magical UNESCO World Heritage site and a unique mix of geology, history and folklore. Here you can see the Mid Atlantic Ridge, a rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Frequent earthquakes have opened up ravines running with glacial melt, which have trickled a long way underground to emerge crystal clear.
This brings us to the second extraordinary Icelandic swimming experience, for here you can dive and snorkel in dry suits between the tectonic plates of two continents. With indigo water and visibility of up to 100 metres, Silfra has been voted a global top-ten dive site.
Hikers will enjoy the Almannagja gorge, as will Game of Throne fans, who might recognise it as the Riverlands path up to the Eyrie. In 930 Vikings gathered the Alpingi, the world’s first democratic parliament, in Thingvellir. Camping is available here and in Geysir, as are cabins, guesthouses and hotels. It is another good place to catch the Northern Lights.
There was one last thing we wanted to do—take to the rugged lava fields and beaches on an ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle) with the arctic winds on our faces and black sand below. Voted a top-10 best non-tropical beach by National Geographic, Reynisfjara Beach’s looming cliffs, black sand, craggy basalt ‘trolls toes’ and eery Icelandic light made it a dramatic location for both Star Wars and Game of Thrones.
But I am here for something else; among the thousands of seabirds in the rocky columns, are puffins, and my inner Polar explorer will cross oceans to see puffins.