Iceland: the land of fire and ice
"Boiling water blasts out of geysers"
There is something ethereal about Iceland that seizes the imagination when you first see the country looming on the horizon.
I have been travelling here for over 25 years and I never fail to be impressed by my first glimpse of this spectacular Nordic island nation, the way it suddenly appears through the clouds as you fly over the tortured topography of the Reykjanes Peninsula on the final descent into Keflavík International Airport.
Most visitors to Iceland arrive via Keflavík, a relatively small airport located on the northwest tip of the peninsula, 50km west of Reykjavík city centre, the country’s vibrant capital. It is undeniably an odd coincidence that the place in Iceland where the first Norse settlers made their home should now be the capital city.
After a brief period of fame as the home of the first settler, Ingólfur Arnarson, who came to Iceland with his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttir in the year 874 AD, Reykjavík declined into a period of obscurity in Icelandic society, and for centuries there was nothing but a small farm on this isolated headland.
When Ingólfur Arnarson first saw Iceland rising up out of the sea he decided to let the gods decide where might be the best location along the coast for him to settle.
According to Landnámabók, or the ‘Book of Settlements’, Ingólfur left his native Norway as a result of tribal feuds, determined to settle on an island that had been discovered far out in the ocean by Norse seafarers. He sailed from Norway with all his chattels, livestock and slaves. He also took along his treasured high-seat pillars (Öndvegissúlur), symbols of his noble rank in Norway. The carved wooden pillars, which would have stood by his seat in the hall of his home fjord, showed that he was the head of the household.
As his ships came in sight of land, Ingólfur threw his high-seat pillars overboard, saying that he would make his home wherever the gods chose to wash the pillars ashore. After having thrown them into the water, Ingólfur came ashore at a headland that was subsequently named Ingólfshöfði, where he raised a house and spent his first winter. He sent out two of his slaves, Vílfill and Karli, to look for the carved pillars. They searched along the coastline for three years before finally locating them in a large bay in the southwest of the country where “smoke” rose from a nearby hot spring. Determined to fulfil his oath to abide by the Norse gods, Ingólfur settled there, as he had vowed, and called the place Reykjavík (Smoky Bay).
It was recently my good fortune to return to Iceland as a guest of Heiðdís Einarsdóttir and her team at Visit Reykjavík, who are responsible for the worldwide marketing and development of the city’s visitor economy.
Shortly before I embarked on this assignment I had surgery to remove a bony growth, or exostosis from the top of my foot, so it was perhaps very fortunate I had planned to concentrate my visit around Reykjavík and the spectacular south coast and return to Iceland next year for the more typically adventurous activities in the Westfjords and far north of the country above the Arctic Circle.
As a consequence, I had been booked into the comfort of the CenterHotel Plaza, which is a splendid hotel located by the main square in the heart of the Old City offering the best location to explore the city centre and within walking distance of a myriad of restaurants and cafés, the main shopping streets of Laugavegur and Bankastræti, the iconic Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, numerous museums, the bustling harbour and the famous Kolaportið flea market.
I was looking forward to my return to Iceland’s south coast enormously, for I know this region very well indeed. It was comforting to know that my hosts had made arrangements for me to join Reykjavík Excursions’ renowned South Shore Adventure tour, for they are one of Iceland’s leading tour operators. This tour is ideal for nature lovers of all kinds and takes you along the south coast, one of the country’s most scenic regions, as far as Vík, a charming village and the southernmost settlement in Iceland. Its stretch of black basalt sand beaches are reputed to be one of the wettest places in the country. The towering cliffs west of the beach are home to many seabirds, most notably puffins which burrow into the shallow soils during the nesting season.
Our tour guide was Karl Jóhannsson, an expert in these latitudes who has travelled extensively throughout Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Along the way we chatted eruditely about our expeditions around the globe and passion for the great outdoors, before stopping at the beautiful Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which is one of most popular waterfalls and natural wonders in Iceland. One of the interesting things about this waterfall is the fact that visitors can walk behind it into a small cave and out the other side.
We also stopped at the much-photographed Skógafoss waterfall which are situated at the cliffs of the former coastline which had receded seaward during the last Ice Age. With its impressive 60 m drop, Skógafoss is one the biggest waterfalls in the country. Before leaving the falls I had an opportunity to visit the Skógar Folk Museum and really got a taste of how Icelanders lived in past centuries.
Later that evening I was due to dine with Völundur Snær Völundarson and his wife Þóra who had invited me to their home for dinner to get a taste of how Icelanders live now, so I made a point of missing the scheduled lunch stop on the way back to Reykjavík.
Völundur is a famous celebrity TV Chef in Iceland and the author of several successful books on traditional Icelandic and Nordic cuisine. This insanely talented and entertaining chef now devotes his energies to welcoming guests to his historic home in downtown Reykjavík where he and Chef Anita Ösp Ingólfsdóttir of Hotel Borg fame, showcase the very best that Icelandic cuisine has to offer while enlightening their guests about Icelandic traditions, ingredients and demonstrating their culinary skills in an elaborate ceremony of almost forgotten rituals.
Icelandic cuisine is not all about seafood, grilled puffin, sheep’s head, fermented shark and minke whale steaks and is as progressive as downtown Reykjavík’s reputation is hip, with a hot dog stand near the harbour, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (a name that translates as “Town’s Best”), claiming to offer the best hot dogs in the world, and Ostabúðin, a restaurant that was once a cheese shop that sold fish out the back.
Another culinary newcomer is the Jörgensen Kitchen & Bar, which is a casual dining Nordic fusion restaurant located in the most up and coming area in Reykjavík, and offers a first class dining experience in a relaxing ambience. The food here is sourced with fresh Icelandic ingredients with a curiously unexpected twist in a memorable atmosphere. Their seafood bisque is quite simply the yardstick by which other starters must be judged.
Reykjavík abounds with an amazing array of architectural wonders, but if you are impressed by modernity there are two new landmarks well worth a visit. The Perlan (Pearl) embodies the Icelandic melting of nature and space to accommodate community needs. It sits on a hill with a hollow steel frame supporting a huge glass dome and walls that link six aluminium-sided storage tanks, each of which can contain 4 million litres of water at 85°C. Piping hot water is pumped through the metal framework in winter to provide geothermal heating, while cold water flows during summer. There are a myriad of shops, exhibition space, and a revolving restaurant on the top floor commanding panoramic views of the capital area.
A striking addition to the Icelandic and international cultural and conference scene is the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, which is situated in a magical setting alongside the harbour in the very heart of Reykjavík. Harpa is an eco-friendly building, designed by the renowned artist Ólafur Elíasson, Henning Larsen Architects and Batteríið Architects. Its gleaming façade draws inspiration from the crystallised basalt columns commonly found in Icelandic geology and is based on a geometric principle, realized in two and three dimensions.
Three of Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations are within easy reach of Reykjavík – Gullfoss, Geysir and Thingvellir (Þingvellir), and form what is known as the Golden Circle (although it’s not actually circular). This 190-mile round-trip takes in spectacular geysers and vast glacial waterfalls, and if you have your own transport you can easily manage all three locations in a day from the capital. And if not, there’s no shortage of tour operators in Reykjavík willing to take you.
Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall) is one of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls offering a spectacular view of the forces and beauty of untouched nature, located in South Iceland in the canyon of the wide Hvítá (White) river which is fed by Iceland’s second largest glacier, the Langjökull. The waters of this spectacular waterfall plummet down into a wide curved three-step “staircase” and then abruptly plunge in two stages into a crevice 32 m deep, whose precipitous walls reach up to 70 m in height.
Geysir, sometimes known as The Great Geysir, lies in the Haukadalur valley in southwestern Iceland and is undoubtedly one of the most famous geysers in the world and the first to be described in print, the oldest accounts of which date back to 1294. Although eruptions of the geysir may be infrequent, and have in the past stopped altogether, when the do erupt they can hurl boiling water up to 70 m into the air.
No single place epitomizes the history of Iceland and the Icelandic nation better than Þingvellir by the Öxará river. At Þingvellir – literally “Parliament Plains” – is where the Alþingi (anglicised as Althing or Althingi) general assembly of Iceland was established around 930, and is one of the oldest extant parliamentary institutions in the world. It lies in a rift valley, about 40 km northeast of Reykjavík at a site that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
You will be well rewarded for taking the short trip with the Elding ferry service to the beautiful island of Viðey, situated in Kollfjördur, just off Reykjavík. Apart from its breeding puffins, ancient ruins and rich historical background, other attractions include The Imagine Peace Tower, an impressive work of art by Yoko Ono, which was lit for the first time in 2007 in memory of her husband, John Lennon and their message of peace. The tower of light has since been lit from sunset to midnight from Lennon’s birthday on 9 October to 8 December, the date of his death.
You could be forgiven for mistaking Iceland’s scenery for a sci-fi movie set. Boiling water blasts out of geysers, and cracks in the earth belch steam. Arid plains and mustard-coloured rocks stretch endlessly into the distance. Volcanoes lurk menacingly under a covering of snow. Whether illuminated by the unending daylight of summertime or the spectacular Northern Lights during the winter, Iceland has become a popular alternative travel destination for all seasons, where a myriad of marvels and a paradise of possibilities await your arrival. Iceland is guaranteed to ignite your senses, so why not leap feet-first into the adventures that await you in ‘the land of fire and ice’ – you’ll emerge exhausted, exhilarated and dusted in volcanic ash, but positively revived for having charted a course to her shores.
How to get there
Where to stay