Skirting Reyjavik, we headed to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, a growing beauty spot about three hours from the city. The drive was the full Top Gear, skirting Faxa Bay and Reykjavik’s backdrop, Mount Esja, which Bruno rechristened the “tiramisu”, due to its icing sugar-topped appearance. The majestic landscape kept on delivering, revealing mile upon mile of glorious open road, mountains, lakes and scattered settlements: Grundarfjördour, Kirkjufell, Bjarnarhöfn. At the small and mercifully pronounceable fishing village of Rif we put down roots, then set out to circumnavigate the peninsula’s remote tip – a worthy setting for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, inspired by the Snaefellsnes volcano.
With the volcano looming above us like a vast meringue – they call it the “crown of Iceland” – we walked up a couple of smaller, spent volcanoes, strolled through fields of lava towards black beaches, and took a walk from Hellnar to Arnarstapi, villages between the mountain and the sea where hexagonal basalt pillars provide homes for millions of screeching seabirds. Our reward was a fantastic fish soup in Hellnar’s Primus café.
The following day we mustered in Ólafsvík harbour to go on a whale-watching expedition. The cold sea wasn’t entirely appealing but off we sailed, the deck hands scouting the sea like Horatio Nelson at post. Just as everyone was getting twitchy the skipper piped up: “Sperm whale at nine o’clock!” That great leviathan came within ten metres of the boat and a half-hour later, we’d clocked up about nine sightings before heading home.
We then drove eastwards, passing Reykjavik again en route towards South Iceland, stopping in a few places such as extraordinary Seljavallalaug swimming pool, directly fed by geothermal water that heats the deep green pool to about 35˚C. After a luscious wallow, surrounded by a mountainous amphitheatre, we headed to one of Iceland’s famous waterfalls, Skógafoss, and then decided to hike to the Reykjadalur hot river: perhaps the most extraordinary experience of our journey. This hilly two-mile trek sorted out the hardcore from the coach-tour, and once or twice we almost gave up, but eventually we made it to a phenomenal valley in the sky where plumes of steam marked the locations of hot springs, and where a jolly fraternity of intrepid walkers wallowed in a stream that was about 40˚C. Indeed, it was so hot that we found a pool cooled by a tributary of snowmelt. It was like having a celestial bath.
A few miles farther along the South Iceland stretch of the N1 – one of the most jaw-dropping roads in the world – we came to our accommodation at Sólheimahjáleiga, close to the town of Vik and also to the Sólheimajökull glacier. A cosy night later we headed to see the great hulking form, somewhat in retreat these days but still an extraordinary presence. The sun shone as we walked up to this real-life geography lesson, but sadly it was too windy for a glacier hike. Iceland’s wonders must be treated with respect and as if to remind us of that, Eyjafjallajökull volcano peeked over the glacier, letting us know who was in charge.
Then it was time for a treat. You can’t go to Iceland and not visit the Blue Lagoon, possibly the world’s most famous swimming pool – an eerily ice-blue lake next to a power station in Keflavik’s lava fields. As Bruno said, “I’ve ticked off a lot of my bucket list already.” As we left, with lungs clean, heads clear, and dreams full of sagas, we already hoped to return to the land of ice and fire.
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