Volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, the Northern Lights, geysers and endless expanses – Iceland really does offer nature in its purest forms! The world’s largest volcanic island exudes a fascination few of us can resist.
Facts, facts and more facts: Iceland is the world’s largest volcanic island, its most sparsely populated nation state, and Europe’s second-largest island full-stop. Its people are the happiest in the world, enjoying rates of life expectancy second only to Japan, and Reykjavik is the world’s most northerly capital. Iceland straddles the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and a powerful fissure traverses the entire island where the two plates meet, running north-east to south-west. This vast crack is growing by around two centimetres a year. That alone sounds pretty exciting, wouldn’t you say?
Coming down after the four-and-a-half hour flight north from Vienna, looking down on the green-brown island surrounded by deep-blue waters with its white volcanic glaciers, we don’t yet know we are destined to find new love here: love for a country so very different from anything else we have ever experienced. But all in good time…
We pick up our hire car at Reykjavik-Keflavik Airport. We will be exploring the island in our own time by taking the Hringvegur circular road, which hugs the coastline (with the odd detour) for over 1,300 kilometres. It’s the perfect way to get an all-round feel for the place, with a miracle of nature seemingly around every corner. All along the route, we see one waterfall after another; many tourist attractions can be found basically just lying by the side of the road, while others are more coy, hidden away in the island’s interior.
We set off west out of Reykjavik towards the ‘Golden Circle’. After about half-an-hour’s drive, we reach the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage National Park, Thingvellir. Thingvellir is in the rift valley zone, and surrounded by four active volcanoes. The continental plates here are drifting apart at the speed of growing fingernails! The landscape along the route through Almannagjá (‘old men’s gorge’) to the Öxarárfoss (‘Öxar waterfall’), which you can reach in around 20 minutes from the car park, is breathtaking. Arguably, though, the greatest single highlight of Thingvellir is the amazing diving it offers: in the Silfra Gorge, you can ‘dive between continents’, with visibility of over 100 metres. This is because the water in Lake Thingvellir remains at a temperature between 2 and 4 degrees Celsius year-round, and the meltwater from the glacier has had to flow through lava rock for years before eventually bubbling back up into the lake as a subterranean spring.
Our second destination in the Golden Circle is the geothermal region of Haukadalur, world-famous for one very special natural phenomenon, the Geysir. The original spring from which the Geysir took its name is no longer active, or only at very irregular intervals. The site is also home to the Strokkur geyser, which can be relied on to send a fountain of water 35 metres into the air every 15-20 minutes, rain or shine.
A few kilometres further on, we find one of the loveliest waterfalls in Iceland, the Gulfoss or ‘golden waterfall’. It takes its name from the spray it produces, which has a gentle golden shimmer to it when the sun is very low in the sky. The water of Gulfoss drops around 32 metres in two separate stages, at right angles to one another. Between the two stages is an accessible plateau, where you feel like you’re in the very heart of the waterfall.
We then make our way to our next stopping-off point: Vik, the southernmost tip of the island, with its legendary black lava beach. If you’re looking for a hotel with a great view of the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier, we recommend the Hotel Katla Hofdabrekka , which has lovely big rooms and is close to the small town.
As we move east, we pass the world’s largest field of lava. The lava, which has turned to stone and is covered in moss, extends as far as the eye can see in every direction. Small wonder most Icelanders believe in trolls – it looks as if a supernatural being could be lurking behind every one of the rocks here. In Vatnajökull National Park, named after the volcano of the same name, we take a one-and-a-half-hour hike to the ‘black waterfall’ – Svartifoss – which crashes impressively down past a jet-black wall of basalt. Further east, countless icebergs suddenly turn up alongside the road – ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Jökulsárlon – the glacier lagoon! We wonder whether we’ve ever seen quite such a beautiful place, as ice floes and bergs float silently past us in different formations, glistening in the sun in every imaginable shade of blue and white, against the backdrop of the snow-white volcanic landscape. It’s mystical, mythical – and indescribably beautiful – stuff.
Seeing a whale is a childhood dream for many of us – and one which, with a bit of luck and half-decent weather, can quickly be transformed into reality on Iceland. The pretty town of Husavik, on the northern coast, is the perfect place to go whale watching from beautiful old sailing ships. The provider Gentle Giants (www.gentlegiants.is/german/) offers a wide variety of different tours – including midnight trips out, when you can see not just the whales but also the midnight sun as it sinks majestically into the sea, gleaming red beneath the waves.
As well as being where you’ll find Iceland’s second city, Akureyri, the north of the island is home to Myvatn, a.k.a. ‘midge lake’, with its numerous impressive hiking paths crossing through the mildly menacing lava landscape. You can’t visit Iceland, of course, without bathing in one of the island’s many ‘hotpots’, a hot spring of mineral-rich water. Bathing is something akin to a national sport here – the naturally communal baths are a great place to exchange the very latest news and get to know other hotpotters. For a good overview of Iceland’s best hotpots, check out the website hotpoticeland.com. As well as the Blue Lagoon, just outside Reykjavik and completely overrun by tourists, one of the most popular of these are the Mývatn Nature Baths. These are located in a major geothermal area on the eastern bank of Lake Myvatn – and are just what you need after a tiring day gathering impressions and hiking around the lake.
“If you really want to see Iceland,” as the Icelanders put it, “get on a horse”. So to round off our tour, just outside Reykjavik, we decide to take a ride on an Icelandic horse. Finding a stables in Iceland is child’s play. Owning as many Icelandic horses as possible, in fact, is considered a status symbol. You can get a good overview of the stables in your surrounding area by going to TripAdvisor. We dropped in on a smaller stables, „Nupshestar“ home to ‘only’ seventy horses. If you really want to experience the vast expanses, colours, emptiness and air of Iceland, then getting on a horse is an unforgettable way to do it, and you feel the exhilarating feeling of having the whole world to yourself.
We’re pleased to have an excuse to come back sometime soon – because the best time to experience the famous Northern Lights is during the cold months, from October to March! We will be travelling to this incredibly beautiful, endlessly seductive country again – because for us, too, winter is coming! Iceland is home to some of the original sets for scenes in the series Game of Thrones, and a guided tour is a must-do for fans of the series wishing to find out exactly what’s beyond the wall.
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