Sunday 19 August 2018

Iceland: Golden days in land of fire and ice

 

The Icelandic landscape abounds with dramatic sights, including geysers, lava fields and volcanic black-sand beaches, such as this one near Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon
The Icelandic landscape abounds with dramatic sights, including geysers, lava fields and volcanic black-sand beaches, such as this one near Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon
Gemma, wearing an algae mask, in the hot, silica-rich waters of the Blue Lagoon
Icelandair cabin
Hallgrímskirkjanew

Gemma Fullam

When your aeroplane seat's antimacassar bears the name of a goddess - Frigg, queen of the gods, no less - you know you're in for a journey, and a destination, less ordinary.

My friend Carmel (aka Freyja, most glorious goddess of beauty and love) and I were travelling Saga (business) class on Icelandair to Reykjavik; both of us bursting with excitement at the prospect.

Having settled into our vast seats, we toasted our trip with Champagne proffered by a willowy Nordic blonde cabin crew - a real-life goddess - and settled in to enjoy the flight. Such was the level of comfort, we were loath to disembark, having been pampered royally, not least with some of the best food I've ever eaten on an aircraft: Icelandic lamb fillet, with cranberry, smoked ham, barley salad and a luscious Camembert. Washed down with more champers, naturally!

Keflavik Airport, originally built by the American military, is about 50km from Reykjavik ('smoky bay'). Our taxi journey to the capital is on black roads, flanked by vast 500-year-old lava fields, and our driver tells of the island's mischievous elves and their elf stones, which are larger inside than out. Reykjavik itself, a low-rise conurbation situated on Faxafloi Bay, is home to one-third of the country's total population of 330,000 inhabitants. Originally a Viking settlement and a whaling port, today it's a cosmopolitan city; the world's northernmost. Downtown Reykjavik is dense with picturesque corrugated-iron houses, painted in primary colours, a striking contrast against the mutable skyscape.

The Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina is our lodgings for the duration; it's a quirky establishment, down a slipway and right on the water, with views of fishing vessels in dry dock and far-off snowy peaks.

Iceland is perhaps unique in that it runs entirely on renewable energy - hydro and geothermal power; Iceland's 'gold'. As a result, all the interior spaces are incredibly cosy; there's none of that overpowering stuffy heat one often encounters in hotels. Having freshened up and had a quick gawk at the hotel's eclectic mix of polished concrete floors, lush textiles and mid-century modern furniture, we headed out to explore. Reykjavik Marina is less than 10 minutes' walk from the city centre. The streets are spotless, and easy to navigate. We wandered in the general direction of the futuristic Hallgrimskirkja: a Lutheran church, national sanctuary, and Reykjavik's tallest building, named for religious poet Hallgrimur Petursson. Building began in 1945 but dragged on until 1986, the year in which Reykjavik celebrated 200 years as a city. It's a phenomenal structure, built entirely out of forbidding gray concrete, and resembles a cross between the Chrysler building and the Giant's Causeway. It's guarded by a huge effigy of Icelandic explorer Leif Eriksson, who 'discovered' America 500 years before Columbus.

Our bellies were calling, so we tried Durum, a pizzeria in the heart of old Reykjavik. There's no two ways about it: eating out in Reykjavik is expensive, so much so that many visitors forgo it and stock up in the supermarket and duty free instead. A (very good) pizza (for one) and a glass of wine cost €28, but we relished our pricey fast food, and, giddy with excitement, headed to catch our Blue Lagoon bus.

The famous hot pool is a 50-minute drive from the capital, and isn't actually a natural pool, unlike many of the others that dot the landscape. The reality is rather less romantic: it's a pool of water from the geothermal power plant that you can see from the Lagoon itself. That said, it didn't disappoint.

The building, like so many in Iceland, is made of natural materials - stone, wood, slate - and complements the surrounding landscape. Inside is a conveyor belt of efficiency: you show your pre-booked ticket (everyone gets a time slot; we had chosen 8pm), you are given, depending on your entry class (we were Premium), a towel, robe, flip-flops, and a wristband that gives you access to lockers and allows you to 'buy' items and pay on exit. We couldn't wait to get our clothes off! If you're prudish, be aware that you must shower naked before putting on your swimsuit, but also know that the body-positive Scandis won't bat an eyelid. Once swimsuited up, we headed out into the frigid air and stepped into the milky-blue silica-rich hot water: oh joy! The experience is truly like no other, and for the entire time we were there - two hours - we continually sighed with pleasure. It's that good. The water is no deeper than shoulder height, and shallower in places, but the lagoon is very large, and it's possible to get a good swim in. There's a Mask Bar - silica, and algae - and you can opt for an in-water massage or head for one of the saunas or steam rooms. Masks on, we purchased proseccos from the swim-up bar and luxuriated in the 39°C water, watching the sun dip slowly behind the black lava; our fellow Blue Lagoon-ers resembling white-faced zombies lost in the thrall of the silky waters.

Next morning, we were up with the lark in advance of our trip to the Golden Circle - a 300km loop that encompasses a triad of wonders: Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall. But first, breakfast. The hotel's morning spread was lavish, with everything from steamed vegetables and tuna salad to six different types of bread, blueberry skyr and dairy-free porridge (my barista Americano cost me €4.50; regular coffee is included, however).

Lea Gestsdottir Gayet, a former mountaineering guide, was to be our chaperone, and as she drove, she filled us in on Icelandic life and culture. In Iceland, there are two seasons: winter and summer. The weather is very unpredictable - as we were to discover that day; proper gear is vital if you're visiting, as it can be sunny one minute and blowing a gale with sheeting rain the next. In summer, people celebrate the light, and spend much time outdoors; in fact, year round, most socialising is done in the local pool. Every town and village has one.

Iceland has been a republic only since 1944, having previously been part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and was uninhabited until the 8th Century. It was settled by Celts from the British Isles and, later, Norsemen. In 930AD, the Althing, the world's oldest parliament, was established, at Thingvellir, the first stop on our route. It's a national park, and the only place in the world where the Mid-Atlantic Rift is above sea level and you can clearly see the edge of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates - my friend Carmel, an ecologist, got understandably excited by this geological wonder. Thingvellir (this area, and much of Iceland, has featured on Game of Thrones) itself has long been the location of historic moments in Iceland's history - in 1,000AD, the Old Norse pagan belief system was jettisoned for Christianity, and in 1944, Icelanders declared their independence from Denmark. The park is also home to one of the world's top dive sites, Silfra ravine, where visibility extends to 100 metres, such is the clarity of the glacial water.

Next up on our adventure was Gullfoss, the golden waterfall. The 32-metre-high double waterfall on the Hvita (White) River is an awe-inspiring sight that betters even mighty Niagara. In 1907, an English man had designs on harnessing its power for electricity generation, but the farmer on whose land it was refused, saying, "I do not sell my friends". Investors later inveigled him into selling and the farmer's daughter, Sigridur, fought hard to save her beloved waterfalls. With the help of Sveinn Bjornsson, who became Iceland's first president, she eventually succeeded, and she's known as the world's first environmentalist.

Not far away is the third spectacular element of the Golden Circle: Geysir Geothermal Area, in the Haukadalur Valley. To witness these primordial pools of boiling water is to be transported back to prehistory. This is a rare phenomenon - a mere 1,000 geysers are to be found worldwide. The volcanic activity in the valley is intense: billowing steam bursts give the area an eerie air. There are several geysers here, including the original of the species, Geysir (from the Old Norse 'to gush'). Geysir rarely erupts now, but neighbouring Strokkur ('churn'), blows every few minutes. Down from its 19th Century 60-metre peak, it is still a sight to behold; we stand spellbound, while the blue water bubbles as if it were alive, then: boom! A pillar of steaming liquid shoots into the air, eliciting much oohing and aahing at what is truly an awesome spectacle.

We spend our evening dining at an Indian - expensive but fabulous - having opted out of locating traditional Icelandic fare of hakarl (putrefied shark) or svid (sheep's head), and finish with a few Viking beers in Bravo, an Icelandic pub with a very friendly barman. We reluctantly leave before midnight, mindful of our early flight, and as we walk back under the still-bright sky, the clear air in our lungs, our skin silky-soft from silica and steam, we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a shop window. Our eyes are shining; we are goddesses.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Hallgrimskirkja

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Hallgrímskirkjanew
 

For 1,000 krona (€8), you can ascend this architectural wonder's tower and enjoy a bird's eye view of Reykjavik. Design buffs should seek out the steel and glass geometric form of the Harpa concert hall.

Icelandic horses

Everywhere you go, you’ll spot the diminutive Icelandic horse. These tough equines live outdoors all year round and have a unique fifth gait, the tolt, during which at least one hoof always touches the ground.

Getting there

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Icelandair cabin
 

Icelandair (icelandair.com) offers direct flights six times a week from Dublin to Reykjavik, from €125.42 per person return travelling in economy, including all taxes, fees and charges.

Icelandair offers the opportunity to stopover in Iceland at no additional airfare when you're flying transatlantic to one of its 22 North American destinations.

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