I was soaked in waist-warm water, my face smeared with silica cream, beer in hand, and I’ve been traveling since early morning. So I was most charming when I ran into a former colleague and his wife at the Blue Lagoon.
is now falling gently on the surrounding ebony lava rocks. Ninety minutes in the aquamarine pools of this natural geothermal spa take the stress out of travel; that said, our flight is only two and a half hours away from this beautiful, barren island at the top of the globe and we’ll be arriving straight from the airport for a steam recovery, bath steam and drink alcohol. Iceland, if this is your opening game, I’m hooked.
We are in Reykjavík, 50 minutes from the airport. Europe’s northernmost capital, it’s a charming, compact city by the sea, and our hotel – Skuggi (keahotels.is) – has a first-class location on an elegant street that runs parallel to Laugavegur, the city’s main avenue.
A brace of magnificent monoliths dominate Reykjavik – Hallgrimskirkja and Harpa. The second one – located on the edge of the old harbor area – is the city’s vast concert hall and cultural center: we felt small inside as we sipped our coffee. At night, twinkling light, it’s a sparkling landmark.
Children will enjoy a stroll to nearby Tjornin, the lake in the center of town that is home to swans, eider ducks and gray geese. Follow it up with hot dogs from the legendary Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, a small stand that’s been in business since 1937.
Hallgrimskirkja is the size of a church, but a church – and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. This eye-catching mansion was designed (by Guðjón Samúelsson, who died before completion) to resemble the volcanoes for which the island is famous. (Indeed, who can forget Eyjafjallajökull and the devastation it caused in 2010 when it spewed out a huge cloud of ash and landed thousands of planes?)
Hexagonal basalt columns descend from its high spire, and inside, pylons are rotated in both directions to view the altar and the massive 5,275-pipe organ; with minimal decor, no artifacts and windows (are not stained glass) designed to look out over nature and let in light, it’s a remarkable sacred space.
I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland and immediately felt like I was somewhere very interesting. There’s an atmosphere around where money can’t buy. As the second largest island in Europe with a population of 360,000, its allure lies in its desolateness – its endless vistas of man-made fjords, glaciers and mountains. And it is so beautiful. Early February and the country is covered with snow and – skillful – ice, the sky suffocated with the palest lilac streaks and salmon ruins. Even the wind is picturesque here, dotted with snowflakes that flutter across the plains.
If your vacation is short, a tour of the Golden Circle takes in some of the country’s most iconic sites. A major storm is forecast, which excludes visiting Þingvellir National Park (thingvellir.is). I would love to witness this dramatic rift valley (formed from the collision of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates) where the Vikings conducted their open-air parliament.
However, the next stop along this rich stretch of southern coast is Geysir, which does what it says on the tin. We stood attentively at Strokkur – the most reliable of these hot springs – and watch as the bubble begins to roll on its surface; A man let out a sudden roar and it erupted, sending evaporating jets of water into the icy atmosphere.
Further on, we traced the SignerNamed in honor of Brief Sigríður (1871-1957), the brave woman who fought with plans to build a hydroelectric dam at Gullfoss: Golden Falls – The island’s most famous waterfall, is a beautiful double waterfall (now partially frozen) that cascades down a gorge into the Hvitá River.
One theory is that Gullfoss was named for Gýgur, a local farmer who filled his coin with a coffin and threw it into a waterfall instead of sharing it. For this mesmerized visitor, it was the exhilarating moment of watching the sun emerge from its jet as tons of water roared and howling winds whipped through ice-covered lava fields.
We thaw – the cold in the Himalayas – in the cafe on the falls. Iceland is notoriously expensive: here a bowl of lamb and vegetable soup (an ethnic delicacy) is €16 – however, it’s served with two loaves of bread and promises more meals. It is also great. When I remarked to a fellow traveler how expensive Iceland is, she quips, “So is Ireland!”
Another meal to note – Vegetarians look away now – including puffins and whales. Birds are served smoked with seasonal leaves and raspberry vinegar, and crustacean, as steak (and similarly flavored) with pepper sauce and chips. Delicious, both.
No whales will follow this ride, but we do see dozens of beloved Icelandic horses – proud, stubborn, indomitable – like the inhabitants of this enchanted island. In common with us, Icelanders are furious about our equine friends. Jules Verne, who brought the country into his novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth, wrote, “There is no animal more ferocious than the Icelandic horse. He is not deterred by snow, nor storms, nor impassable roads, nor rocks, glaciers or anything. “
For a book lover, another reason to love this place is their passion for literature. Outside Jolabokaflod –
The Christmas book flood, which began during the Second World War when the tradition of giving books (paper was one of the few unallocated items) as gifts was established – they are a nation of avid readers and writers.
Martina, our guide commented, “We don’t have castles or ancient buildings, but we do have sagas and myths.”
Their sagas are a union of two teachings dear to Icelandic hearts – law and poetry – and this, along with the desolate yet awe-inspiring landscape, invigorates this revered art country. Before departing, I read several contemporary authors – Ragnar Jonasson and Lilja Sigurðardóttir – both use the fortified terrain of their homeland to make stylish thrillers about bad men and women.
Auroras are on our itinerary, but nature will not be dictated by the wishes of tourists: cloud cover is forecast to obscure the greatest light show on earth – so We are pleased with a specially curated exhibition.
Aurora Reykjavik (aurorareykjavik.is) built in the old harbor area by a young band and well worth a visit in lieu of a tour. It is fascinating to learn the science and read the many myths that have grown around this extraordinary phenomenon. According to the Chinese, the Northern Lights reflect a battle between good and evil, while in Russian folklore they are associated with the fiery dragon that seduced local women while men went to war.
We’ve only covered the tip of Iceland: there’s much more to see and also in the summer. For once, I’m not sad. Surely, one day I will come back here to see the green and blue lights dance over this sublime land of ice, fire and light.
- Madeleine traveled with the Department of Tourism: Iceland & Aurora – three nights, from €879pp. Departing from March, October, November and December 2022
- This fully guided vacation includes flights, bed and breakfasts, transfers, and guided excursions including a half-day excursion to Reykjavík, Northern Lights chase and excursion all day round the Golden Circle. The 4-night tour costs from €939pp and departs in March, April and October 2022
- Visit traveldepartment.com or call 01 6371633 for more information
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/who-needs-the-northern-lights-iceland-is-utterly-enchanting-anyway-41436772.html Who needs the Northern Lights? Iceland is absolutely mesmerizing anyway