As cool as ice

Date Posted: 01/12/2010

Jeannine Williamson discovers a diverse landscape of volcanic lava fields, spouting hot springs, glaciers and waterfalls.

Earlier this year most people had probably never heard of Eyjafjallajokull, let alone know how to pronounce it; but by April the name of Iceland’s infamous volcano was on everyone’s lips.

Proving that every ash cloud has a silver lining, Eyjafjallajokull actually helped put the land of ‘fire and ice’ on the map. The Iceland Tourist Board reported that it had increased awareness of the country’s amazing natural wonders and landscapes along with the fact that it is not as far away from the UK, or as cold, as many people imagine. Set against the backdrop of the increasingly expensive euro-zone, Iceland has also become one of the few countries where the pound stretches further than it used to.

Now the dust has settled on Europe’s least populated country, Iceland is a destination where your group can discover incredible phenomena, such as the summertime Midnight Sun when the sun never sets, diverse landscapes of volcanic lava fields, spouting hot springs, glaciers and waterfalls, plus unforgettable sightseeing opportunities such as whale watching.

Reykjavik

The world’s most northerly capital is home to more than half of Iceland’s 300,000-strong population. It’s a city of striking contrasts where small houses nestle beside futuristic glass buildings, and all within minutes of a rugged countryside shaped by volcanoes.

Rocket-shaped Hallgrims Church which is actually meant to resemble a lava flow, is Iceland’s highest building and it’s worth climbing the tower for a view of the paint box coloured rooftops below. The charming and bohemian 101 old town district is the focal point of the city, and here your group members will find Austurvollur Square, site of the Althingi parliament building and city cathedral surrounded by lively bars and cafes.

On top of Oskjuhlid Hill is another of Iceland’s most recognisable buildings. Perlan, or the Pearl, is a striking modern glass domed building that has a revolving restaurant as well as a viewing deck. The ground floor houses the Saga Museum charting the country’s early history through life-like replicas of historic figures, including blood-thirsty feuding Vikings. Discounted entry is available for groups.

Golden Circle

This 300 kilometre (190 mile) loop, from Reykjavik into central Iceland and back, encompasses Iceland’s most famous sights. It’s the most visited part of the country and everything that makes Iceland so interesting can be found here.

The original Geysir gave its name to hot springs around the world. Although it’s now inactive, its next door neighbour Strokkur blows its top every ten minutes and spouts up to 35 metres (115 feet) into the air. The region is also home to thundering waterfalls created by melting ice from glaciers.

At the centre of Thingvellir, the country’s first ever national park, is the original site of the Icelandic parliament and set against a backdrop of glaciers and a landscape with great geological interest. The southern region is extremely varied and also includes the biggest lava fields in the country. Reykjanes peninsula is a surreal lunar landscape and where US astronauts trained for the 1969 moon landing.

Skogar Folk Museum, on the south coast, has over 6,000 artefacts and examples of various types of houses through the ages, providing a fascinating insight into Icelandic social history, storytelling and folklore. There is discounted admission for groups.

Blue lagoon

No visit to Iceland would be complete without your group members taking the plunge in the Blue Lagoon, the most famous of the geothermal pools heated naturally by Mother Nature that can be found throughout the country.

Situated outside Reykjavik and close to the airport, excursions are widely available and included in many tour packages. The water, with a constant temperature of 37 to 40 degrees Celsius, is rich in minerals famed for their revitalising, therapeutic and anti-ageing properties. The lagoon has had a facelift in recent years and there are now excellent modern changing rooms. In the lagoon your group members can help themselves to the mud for a DIY facial and body scrub or treat themselves to a massage in the lagoon spa or drink from the swim-up bar. If anyone prefers not to go into the lagoon, they can enjoy a view of the steaming water from the cafe or observation platform.

Natural wonders

If you decide to venture beyond the classic circular route, there are plenty of other natural wonders and sights to discover. Glaciers cover 11 per cent of Iceland’s total land area and Vatnajokull, 300 miles from Reykjavik and close to the south east coast is the largest. Smaller but closer to the capital are Hofsjokull and Langjokull, and visitors are able to explore them year-round using snow scooters, snowmobiles or rugged 4x4 vehicles.

Iceland is a paradise for birdwatching. The coastal cliffs and islands are home to huge numbers of seabirds, and Vestmannaeyjar on the Westman Islands has the world’s largest colony of Lundi puffins, estimated to be up to ten million. Every August, visitors and islanders help baby ‘pufflings’ as they leave their nests for the first time and learn to fly.

A new ferry route has opened to Iceland’s so-called ‘Pompeii of the north’. The service from Bakkafjara has reduced crossing times to Heimaey, the largest and only inhabited island of the Westman Islands, from two hours and 45 minutes to just 25 minutes, with up to seven crossings daily. The link makes the island an easy day trip option for groups staying in Reykjavik. Guided excursions on offer include a wildlife cruise around Heimaey and trip to the abandoned town of the same name that was buried in 1973 by a volcanic explosion that lasted more than five months. Today groups can witness the massive impact of the eruption by looking around abandoned homes and buildings that were covered by ash and lava.

Iceland essentials

Eat: Whilst Iceland has some infamous food, such as rotted shark meat and singed sheep’s head, these are only served during special festivals. Iceland’s unpolluted environment has provided it with some of the most natural foods on the planet, including succulent lamb from sheep raised on mountain meadows and fish caught in clean North Atlantic waters. Whilst some of your group might not want to eat puffins, they’re featured on many menus and taste rather like duck. For dessert try skyr, a dairy product similar to yoghurt and often served with fruit.

Drink: Imported wine is very expensive, but Iceland produces some excellent beers. A national tipple is Brennivin or Black Death, a type of potent schnapps made from potatoes and flavoured with caraway and, as the name implies, not for the faint hearted!

Try: A trek on an Icelandic horse, a pure breed unchanged since Viking times. Although small, the horses (you mustn’t call them ponies) are hardy and gentle, making them suitable for even the most novice rider. Tours from one hour upwards are available on the outskirts of Reykjavik, including transport to and from your hotel.

Buy: Traditionally patterned jumpers, hats, gloves and scarves knitted from Icelandic wool are long-lasting souvenirs and very warm. Beauty products made with natural minerals from the Blue Lagoon make good presents and children might love Icelandic trolls and Viking figures.

Go: June to September is warmest with temperatures averaging 11 degrees Celsius. Coldest months are November, December and January when temperatures average zero degrees. The weather can always be very changeable. June is the month of the Midnight Sun, when the sun never fully sets, and late September until the beginning of April is the best time to see the Northern Lights, nature’s amazing colourful light show that can be seen dancing across the sky on clear nights.

Top three sights

1. Gullfoss

Meaning Golden Falls and part of the Golden Circle route, Gullfoss is one of Europe’s largest waterfalls and an awe-inspiring sight as it roars down a steep drop creating a giant wall of spray.

2. Whale watching

Iceland is one of Europe’s top spots to see the ocean’s giants, with a 98 per cent success rate on most whale watching tours. Minke, killer and blue whales are among the many species living in Icelandic waters from April to October and Husavik, on the south coast, is the whale watching capital.

3. Snaefellsjokull glacier

The landmark of west Iceland, immortalised by Jules Verne in his book Journey to the Centre of the Earth, can be reached with snowmobiles and tours on snowcats, which are trucks that run on caterpillar tracks.

Factfile

Flight time: 3hrs.

Time difference: GMT year round.

Currency: Icelandic krona. £1=ISK176.

Language: Icelandic, with English spoken throughout the country.

Health: Summer visitors should take insect repellent as there are midges in countryside areas close to lakes and rivers.

Useful contact:

Iceland Tourist Board:
www.visiticeland.com

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