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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Iceland.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Iceland.
What to expect:
Channelling art deco vibes, this place is as elegant as it is imposing. Opened in 1930, it was Iceland’s very first luxury hotel. Guest rooms are classy, with parquet flooring, leather armchairs and turn of the Century artwork.
The property overlooks Austurvollur square, across from Althingi, the Icelandic parliament and Reykjavik cathedral. You’re within walking distance of a host of restaurants and attractions including The Fish Market.
Don’t miss Borg Spa, where you can indulge in a host of treatments. Borg Restaurant is another great pick; drawing in locals with its constantly changing menu.
What to expect:
Embodying cool Nordic design, this sleek outpost shows respect for Icelandic aesthetics fused with contemporary elements. Rooms are loaded with cool greysand whites-and have huge windows showcasing city and mountain views.
On Laugarvegur, wander through this hypercool thoroughfare, popping into Mal og Meaning to explore the country’s rich literary heritage, buy vintage finds in Spuutnik or escape the city’s strong winds with a warm bowl at: Noodle Station.
Tuck into delicious farm-fresh cuisine then enjoy an Icelandic beverage with friendly natives in the funky on-site lounge.
The key when taking children wildlife watching is to manage expectations. This can be difficult when one of your tribe jumps onto your bed at Sam announcing this is the day we’re all going to see orcas. As our boat heads out of Olafsvik on the west coast of Iceland in pursuit of both orcas and whales, I try to temper Thomas’ hopes for the umpteenth time. For all animal-spotting adults know: the creatures wait for no man. We trundle alongside dramatic coastal scenery in Breidafjordur Bay, whereupon our effervescent guide Judith invites us to look out across the port bow. There’s a collective gasp from everyone: a dorsal fin, chillingly tall and clearly attached to something that means business, slicing through the water. Soon there are four orcas all but nudging alongside the gunwales. They heave up and down as though breathing in harmony with the ebb and flow of the sea.
Our three children, along with the other 30 passengers, are mesmerised. No sooner have the orcas exited the stage but a pod of sperm whales is sighted. Remarkably, we’re able to drift right up to them, stand in awe of their vast blubbery bodies and gasp as they flick their tales up before diving. So much for dampening expectations. Perhaps the most striking thing about Iceland for visiting families is that everything is larger than life. Driving away from Reykjavik’s airport through a moonscape of bumpy, jagged lava fields, the landscape, scattered with volcanic debris, looks the way a child views the world: intensely vivid, three-dimensional and tactile. Those lava flows running down the side of that volcano could be the paws of a giant dinosaur; that vast chasm in the sheer rocks are a sign of a world specially created to amuse the person viewing it.
Iceland is way too large to explore on one visit and, to avoid spending our entire week in a car, we base ourselves on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, three hours north of Reykjavik. It has everything we need: from a large volcano on our doorstep, to breezy beaches and wild, open spaces. The volcano in question is Snaefellsjokull which, unlike many of the other Icelandic volcanoes, has behaved itself in recent times. It looks the part, though, with triangular flanks leading up to a glacier-capped summit. We’re staying in the village of Hellnar, more or less at the base of the volcano, in Glacier Lodge, a smart rural hideaway furnished in Nordic pine, with a steep pitched roof and stairs. It’s part of the package laid on by our tour operator, Discover the World. Since this is a family holiday, the company provides an iPad that has a decent children’s travel component, ‘Mission Explore’.
But, it’s a mixed blessing. Children squabble over whose turn it is to use the thing and it proves all too easy for little people to study it rather than look at the natural wonders they’re actually visiting. But, our days pass quickly, each one based around a single activity so as to avoid too much driving or dashing from one place to a not her. We take a second, shorter boat trip offshore from Grundarfjordur on the north coast. The puffins are beginning to nest, scuttling back and forth, low over the water, with an animal magnetism equal to that of the orcas, with the chilly waters overlooked by Kirkjufell, a mountain of strikingly conical dimensions. Having seen the country from the coast, we now inspect it underground. Along the skirt of Snaefellsjokull, we find the lava tubes at Vatnshellir. Wearing hard hats, we wind down a 30m- long spiral staircase into a cave 8,000 years old, packed with stalactites (including some that stick out sideways) and fossilised gas bubbles.
We spend a couple of days exploring the southern edge of Snaefellsnes, walking the corrugated coastline to the natural arches at Arnarstapi. Further west, down a path flecked with otherworldly shades of green, yellow and white rock, and lichens, we find the black pebbles and volcanic sand of Djupalonssandur beach. The children are more taken by tales of local strongman competitions involving boulders and hold their own contest, hurling rocks into the pool at the back of the beach. They’re having fun, which is what it’s all about, so we let any poetic talk about the beach’s natural beauty go. One thing surprises us. We’d imagined the children to be the right age for tales of elves and trolls — extraordinarily, more than half the Icelandic population claims to believe in them — but the talk leaves them cold. Perhaps it’s just there’s enough magic in the landscape before them that they can create their own creatures and their own worlds.
Pick up your hire car at Keflavik Airport and head north along the coast to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula; the drive should take around three hours. On the way, call in atthe Settle merit Center in Borgames, which has entertaining exhibitions on the sagas, with plenty in English. It’s also an excellent place to stop for a meal, with assorted local produce, from lobster tails to lamb, on the menu.
Spend your first night in Hotel Framnes in the coastal town of Grundafjorour. Rooms are warm, quiet and comfortable. The real highlight is the food, which might include lamb, blackened cod and skyr pudding, and daily seafood specials fresh from the harbour. The hotel also offers a northern lights wake-up call and can arrange whale – watching trips.
Spend the day exploring the north coast of the peninsula. Be sure to visit Kirkjufellfoss waterfall and call into the Storyteller’s Lodge in Grundarfjorour so Ingi Hans can share some Icelandic tales. Bjarnarhofn farm is a 15-minute drive away, few can resist sampling the fermented shark, and the museum is full of fascinating farm and fishing antiques.
The following day, head further round the coast to the black lava beach of Djupalonssandur and the sea stacks at Londrangar. Buoir church is further along the coast – it’s not often open, so stroll around the surrounding lava fields and peer in through the windows if your luck’s out. Hotel Buoir overlooks the church and serves excellent dishes, with lamb and fish featuring heavily.
It’s time to move on to your next hotel: the drive to Vogur Country Lodge on Breioafjorour Baytakes 2 1/2hours. Be sure to visit Eiriksstaoir on your way north, which recreates a 10th-century longhouse. It’s normally closed in winter so call ahead and see if manager Siggi is around to open it for you.
At Vogur, comfortable rooms, in pared-back modern Nordic style, are in old cow sheds, and the dining room is in a former barn. The walls are decorated with farming implements and cow skins, and the floor warmed by underfloor heating. The food is a highlight here, as is the opportunity to watch the northern lights from the hot tub. A visit to Skaro farm, to learn about eiderduck down and the family’s own centuries-old personal sagas, can be arranged through the hotel.
It’s a clear day when the two trolls set out on their journey Snow sits on the distant mountains, but the valley is green and full of summer. Frazzeled hair running amok above pale faces, the pair bob merrily through the hills. Their journey soon comes to an abrupt halt – a giant hand swoops in from above and yanks them into the firmament. ‘So this is my little theatre,’ explains Ingi Hans, inspecting the wooden puppets in the playhouse he conjured up from bits of scrap and uses to entertain children in his hometown of Grundarfjorour. He wheels it across the floor of his workshop – a building known to everyone in the region as the Storyteller’s Lodge – to join the other paraphernalia he’s amassed over the years: old cash machines, ships’ lanterns, tin cars, leather-bound books, vintage Barbie dolls still in their boxes.
Ingi, the thin strip of white beard running down his chin lending him a faint air of wizard, has been collecting and telling stories his entire life. ‘My father was a fisherman and every day I would visit an old man at the harbour who was fixing the nets,’ he says, hands clasped round a freshly brewed mug of coffee. ‘He was always telling stories. My father would come home from the sea and I would share them with him.’ The door swings open and his young grandson comes in, a whirl of snow blowing through behind him. He heads straight to the theatre and starts playing with the trolls. ‘Here we are all storytellers,’ says Ingi. ‘Maybe it’s our Celtic heritage, but our landscape and long winters also have an affect.
We started to collect myths, to bring them back to life, to help us through the cold nights.’ I ask him if he believes in the huldufolk, the mysterious hidden people’ often incorrectly translated as ‘elves’ in English. ‘I have not much experience of them,’he says, ‘but if you reject everything you don’t know, you believe in nothing.’ The road out of Gnmdarfjorour follows the coast west, slick and black and solid in a land of murk Colour is hard to come by in the thick of winter on Snaefellsnes: stiff golden blades of grass rise through the snow on the black beaches ringing the peninsula; and metre-thick ice sheets dripping down rock faces glow turquoise, as if lit from within At dawn, a stripe of electric pink momentarily enlivens the pallid sky above Kirkjufellsfoss, a stack of waterfalls guarded by a mountain in the shape of a witch’s hat. Water emerges beneath a thick hood of ice at the falls’ edge, collecting in black pools below.
Broken icicles litter the ground like abandoned swords. ‘In Iceland, we say icicles are Gryla’s candles,’ says Ragnhildur Siguroardottir, picking her way over the frozen ground. ‘She was an ogre and her 13 sons, the Yule Lads, terrorised children for 13 days before Christmas. She ate her first two husbands.’ As manager of Snaefellsnes Regional Park, Ragnhildur is fascinated by the link between landscape and myth. Like many native Icelanders, she can trace her family tree back to the country’s first Viking settlers, who rowed over the ocean from Norway over a millennia ago. Iceland doesn’t have an architectural heritage but we do have a heritage of storytelling,’ she says, flame hair riffled by the rising wind. We can go to any place and know who lived there, who they loved, who were their enemies.’
Adventurers and pioneers, and often renegades and social outcasts, the people who made it to these shores had a natural propensity for hyperbole, and embellished their reputations with claims of superhuman strength to keep their farms safe from marauders. Their legend grew more fantastical with every successive retelling through the generations. The saga of one of the region’s first settlers, Barour Snaefellsas, was first written in the 15th century, and tells of a man whose father was half-giant and whose daughter was set adrift on an ice-sheet to Greenland.
Barour himself became a half-troll and is said to live in Snaefellsjokull glacier, atop the flat volcano that squats over Snaefellsnes peninsula. ‘There is a lot of magic in our stories and in our nature,’ says Ragnhildur, as a pale, part-time sun inches above the horizon. ‘It’s alive in all of Iceland, but especially here. On every farm, on every mountain, there is a story with some magic in it. People are reluctant to talk about it because they don’t want to look stupid… but the stories always come out eventually.’
Did you know that you can explore the whole of Iceland by road in one trip, whether you go independently by car or coach as part of a group? Visit during the summer months and you’ll find roads that are practically empty. This makes a holiday based around driving the length of Route 1 – the ring road that encircles the island and connects the bulk of the country’s inhabited parts-very appealing. Even better, in summer the Kjolur highland route is open (in winter, it’s closed due to bad weather conditions), meaning you can drive from north to south through the mountains, allowing you to take in sights like the Hveravellir Geothermal area, where you can bathe in a hot pool between two of Iceland’s glaciers, Langjokull and Hofsjokull.
Each part of Iceland has its own charms – here are some of the best from each region, with advice on where to stay to make the most of your trip. The town of Siglufjorour, situated on the edge of a narrow fjord i n the far north of Iceland, makes a good base from which to explore this sparsely populated side of the island – it’s a handsome fishing village that thrived off the back of the country’s herring industry in the 1940s and 1950s. The days of hauling in big catches of herring are now over, but there’s an intriguing museum dedicated to the fishery’s past. From here, head north and take a morning whale-watching trip via sailing boat from Dalvik harbour to catch a glimpse or several of breaching humpbacks. In the afternoon, head to the beautiful Gooafoss waterfall via Akureyri.
An important Allied air base during WWII, Akureyri is still vital today as a thriving port and fishing town. It’s home to a handful of interesting sights, including memorial museums to children’s author Jon Sveinsson and poet Davia Stefansson. There is also an aviation museum, which charts the early days of flight in Iceland, and has artefacts from WWII among other exhibits. Spend a day at Lake Myvatn in a varied landscape of ice-blue lakes and hillsides dotted with green and black lava fields. Here, you can spot a colourful array of bird life.
While you’re in the region, take a closer look at the imposing lava stacks at Dimmuborgir, which translates as ‘Dark Castles’ – they’re disquietingly eerie. End the day with a soak in the geothermal waters of the Myvatn Nature Baths. Craving some yang to yesterday’s yin? Follow your Myvatn experience with a trip to the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss, an invigorating encounter for the eyes-and ears. If you have time, hop on a ferry from Husavikto Grimsey Island, 25 miles north of the mainland and Iceland’s only true piece of the Arctic Circle.
SCOTLAND – Full disclosure: Scotland will not provide your highest probability of seeing the northern lights. That said, on a clear night in the depths of winter, far from bright lights (and with no full moon), the ’mirrie dancers’ may perform. The Caithness region is as far north as you can go on the British mainland. At John O’ Groats, modern wooden chalets by Natural Retreats offer sweeping coastal views, plus the chance to dash outside when the skies erupt Even in the case of an aurora no-show, the wide landscapes and mysterious Stone Age monuments of Caithness are truly compelling.
ICELAND – Four hundred miles closer to the north pole than John O’ Groats, Iceland is also a good bet for dark skies, with only eight people per square mile on average, and huge tracts with none at all bingvellir National Park has a double claim to be the country’s birthplace: a wide valley where two tectonic plates are pulling apart, and also the old meeting place of the Alpingi – the parliament of the early Norse settlers. Just south of here, the ION Luxury Adventure Hotel brings high comfort into this wild terrain. It has big viewing windows, and also runs after-dinner tours to spot the aurora borealis.
NORWAY – Above the Arctic Circle, there is at least one day a year when the sun doesn’t rise. In northern Norway, this means a few hours of milky twilight, then a long night – hopefully illuminated with shimmering curtains and other light displays.
Sollia Gjestegaard is an aurora-spotting base with more history than most: built in 1929 as a lakeside sanatorium to take advantage of the pure air, its wooden cabins are well enough away from Kirkenestown, and just a few hundred metres from the Russian border. It even has a tent camp for guests to get further into the wild… and closer to the lights.
Before you arrive
If you’ve visited Iceland before, chances are you’ve already ticked off all the usual sites in Reykjavik (the Hallgrimskirkja church, the Sun Voyager boat statue, the Viking Museum…) and perhaps whisked yourself off on a classic excursion of the Golden Circle, taking in the iconic Gullfoss waterfall and geysers in Haukadalur, and relaxed in the popular Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. Once you’ve done that, the idea of another extended stopover en route to North America – for which the airport at Keflavik is increasingly used – may not hold much appeal. But tap into the knowledge and expertise of a willing local, like I did (thanks Heida), as part of a ‘Stopover Buddy’ service, and you’ll discover an alternative way to break your journey.
From the airport (or Reykjavik itself), instead of going south-east, as is common, pick up a car and head north, to the easily accessible West Iceland fora day trip with a difference. In no more than an hour’s drive from the city, you’ll reach Hraunfossar waterfall, take in the old church of Reykholt, see gurgling hot springs, enjoy a free geothermal pool to yourself and head underground to explore an old lava tube, making for the perfect 24-hour adventure.
Getting to the city
The cheapest way is to take the airport bus, Flybus, which always has seats available and is timed to connect with all arriving flights. It aIso has free wifi onboard and takes 45 minutes. Taxis are available but are expensive.
Meeting a local “buddy”
Until March 2017, Icelandair are offering passengers flying transatlantic the chance to buddy up with one of their local airline team members. The ‘Celebration Stopover Buddy’ service can be requested when booking your flight and can help you to celebrate your stopover or special occasion by basing it on your own personal hobbies (nature, walking, etc) or offering you a choice of one of many Icelandic festivals to take in. You will need to pay for your own entry to any attractions and your own food and drink, but your buddy’s costs are all covered.
Ways to experience the northern lights become more varied every year – one of the most intimate is a wilderness cabin in Iceland where guests are far enough away from bright lights to see any auroras to maximum effect.
A trip there with specialist operator Aurora Nights includes three evenings in which the lights may put in an appearance, and the offer of a wake-up call should they show up after bed time. The cabin has views of Eyjafjallajökull – the volcano that closed much of European airspace in 2010, and whose name most newsreaders shied away from trying to pronounce (for the record, it sounds something like ‘Eh-ya-fyat-la-yer- kootl’).
Daytime activities include an optional tour of the (currently inactive) volcano, as well as trips to the Gullfoss waterfall, the Strokkur geyser and a concluding soak in the photogenic Blue Lagoon.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
Aurora Nights’ five-day ‘Wilderness Northern Lights Iceland Break’ includes flights from a choice of eight UK airports, one night at the Hotel Reykjavík Centrum and three nights at the Eyjafjallajökull Wilderness Cabin, which sleeps up to seven people in four rooms.
Also covered are transfers by 4×4 SuperJeep, two light lunches and three dinners.
The trip is available until the end of April.
A fortnight in Iceland can feel like a visit to another world. Aside from the warm, interesting and stylish people who populate the northerly island nation, Iceland is crammed full of sights that just can’t be found anywhere else. Many visitors won’t venture far beyond Reykjavík – a fascinatingly multi-faceted city in its own right – but take a car and set out to explore, and you’ll be rewarded with dazzling natural beauty and a better understanding of this enchanting country.
The Full Circle Fly-Drive is a great way to do exactly that. The expertly designed itinerary takes in many of the island’s most spectacular sights and gives you access to some top quality accommodation. If you’d prefer to travel in a group, the Iceland Complete Group Tour visits many of the same areas, and you’ll be well looked after by Regent Holidays’ experienced local partners, who operate the tour on its behalf. Whichever you decide on, it’s worth visiting in summer; aside from the eerie spectacle of the midnight sun, the warmer weather brings out the best of Iceland’s varied flora and fauna. Read on for a brief look at some of the highlights.
Week One: Reykjavík to Egilsstaðir
You begin with a few days exploring the capital and its surrounding area, including the Strokkur geyser, which regularly fires boiling water up to 40m into the sky. Be sure to sample Reykjavík’s burgeoning café culture – the world’s most northerly capital has a surprising affinity for coffee – and check out its thriving arts scene.
The rest of the week sees you cover the south coast, taking in the famous black-sand beaches and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon – where you can enjoy a boat trip among the luminous-blue icebergs – before heading to Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, and the city of Egilsstaðir.
From there the road turns to the sparsely populated eastern coast. Slightly more understated in its beauty, the east is nonetheless a haven for nature lovers. A day or two hiking here, especially around the Hengifoss waterfall, could easily form the highlight of your trip.
Week Two: Lake Mývatn to Snæfellsnes
Your second week begins with a few days spent in the colourful moonscape of the Mývatn region, famed for its geothermal activity. Watch for bubbling mudpools and lava formations, and be sure to try a restorative dip in a hot spring before heading to Akureyri. The country’s second city enjoys a lively nightlife (for Iceland), and some great restaurants, while the Lystigarðurinn botanical gardens are a delight during the summer months.
Before returning to Reykjavík for a final day of relaxation, you’ll spend a few days around the west coast and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Known as ‘Iceland in miniature’ because of its incredible concentration of natural spectacles, the area makes a fitting end for your Icelandic adventure.
The twinkling rays of the Aurora Borealis occupy top spot on many a stargazer’s bucket list, and there are few more comfortable places to experience them than Reykjavik’s CenterHotel Arnarhvoll.
The top-floor SKY restaurant and bar offers dramatic views over the city and the sea beyond, all served up alongside hearty food and drink to insulate against the cold outside.
You can even request a wake-up call should the famously elusive lights appear while you’re asleep.
There’s no shortage of terrestrial attractions either. A tranquil Wellness Center offers indulgent baths and sauna treatments, while some of Reykjavik’s best shopping, and the Lively Harpa Concert Hall, sit on your doorstep.