A Nordic saga

Issue 3 · Winter 2015/16

Oliver Bennett and his son Bruno are thrilled by the otherworldly Game of Thrones landscapes on an Icelandic adventure filled with waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers, geysers and hot rivers

Issue 3 · Winter 2015/16

Oliver Bennett and his son Bruno are thrilled by the otherworldly Game of Thrones landscapes on an Icelandic adventure filled with waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers, geysers and hot rivers

As soon as my 14-year-old son Bruno and I left Keflavík International Airport and drove off in our hire car we felt a supernatural shiver down our spines. Within minutes we were passing fields of eerie basalt leading to metallic seas, with distant snow-capped peaks brooding inland. “It’s like landing on Mars,” Bruno announced.

That’s Iceland, a few hours away by plane from London but brimming with a sense of the infinite. Here, nature is huge and humbling: geysers, glaciers, lakes, volcanoes, and mountains unencumbered by haze or vegetation. The thin Arctic light allows you to see for miles, doing something strange and wonderful to the mind. It’s like walking on to a set for Lord of the Rings. Actually, scrub that, it’s like a set for Game of Thrones, the HBO mega-series – indeed, it is the set for GoT, one of Bruno’s primary motives for suggesting we go there. “It’s where the White Walkers attack the Wildlings,” he said, helpfully. Fair enough. Iceland is the sort of place where you start to believe in Norse gods and general fantastical awesomeness. The country is founded on heroic sagas, after all.
After driving for half an hour we parked in Reykjavik, the most northerly capital city in the world. If you’re expecting a throbbing metropolis, think again. All Icelandic cities are upstaged by the extraordinary panoramas surrounding them, and Reykjavik is an unassuming low-rise sort of town, where colourful corrugated-iron cladding houses stand in cozy contrast to the gunmetal sea. But provincial it isn’t. In recent years Reykjavik has had an injection of life, and as one of the focal points of the Nordic cooking boom, it now hosts celebrated restaurants such as Grillmarket, where the tasting menu includes items such as mini-burgers made of puffin meat, and Fish Market, where diners eat reindeer and Arctic char. It’s sophisticated yet at the same time a bit of a village – Iceland’s entire population is just over 320,000 and everyone knows singer Björk by at most one degree of separation.

The rooftops of Reykjavik
The rooftops of Reykjavik
Oliver and Bruno embark on the "Golden Circle" tour
Oliver and Bruno embark on the "Golden Circle" tour
Walking on the Sólheimajökull glacier

We walked along Laugavegur, the shopping street, nosed into net-curtained coffee houses, took in the revived harbor area, saw the Maritime Museum and the amazing 2011-vintage Harpa concert hall, with façade designed by artist Olafur Eliasson. But the greatest thing about Reykjavik is simply breathing the champagne air and meeting the fun Icelandic people: reserved by day, wild by night. We wallowed in one of the city’s terrific thermal swimming pools, enjoying that cold-outside, warm-inside feeling.

We made it to a valley in the sky where plumes of steam marked the locations of hot springs

At this latitude one finds long days in summer, short ones in winter, and weather and landscape that is changeable: Iceland’s sobriquet is “the land of ice and fire”. Indeed, the world was reminded of this in no uncertain terms a few years ago when Eyjafjallajökull volcano blew, grounding flights and frightening newsreaders worldwide. We set out to seek thin-crust Iceland on the “Golden Circle” tour, a classic circular day-trip from Reykjavik, which goes first to the national park Thingvellir, scene of the first Icelandic parliament in 930, scene of the parting of the world’s tectonic plates, and yes, scene of a Game of Thrones location. Once I’d managed to drag Bruno away from those meddling White Walkers we drove on to see reliable geyser Strokkur send a plume of hot water into the air, which it does every four to eight minutes, testing photographic skills to the limit. After several lame “wicked geezer” jokes, we headed off to our first activity: river rafting. A chilling safety run-down done, we jumped into a rib and rode a torrent of freezing, milky snowmelt, followed by a raucous sauna. It was exhilarating stuff.

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.

Call Scott Dunn on 020 8682 5080 to arrange your tailor-made holiday to Iceland
Images: Corbis, iStock, Getty Images, Alamy

Scott Dunn Suggests

Magical Iceland offers a much-needed break from 21st-century stress

Walk on the wild side with Scott Dunn’s four-night Iceland Wilderness Adventure itinerary. Overnight in pretty Reykjavik, then drive westwards towards the Snaefellsnes peninsula. En route, see the historical site of Reykholt, the hot springs at Deildartunguhver and the waterfalls at Hraunfossar. At the town of Borgarnes, visit the Settlement Centre to find out about Iceland’s Viking history and at the Snaefellsnes peninsula check in at Hotel Budir, which boasts excellent food and an extraordinary location on a lava field by the sea. In the morning, drive to the Snaefellsjökull glacier, then visit the nature reserve of Arnarstapi, home to a large Arctic tern colony, before heading to Bjarnarhöfn’s Shark Museum and (in season) the chance to experience whale watching from Grundarfjördur. After a night in cozy Hotel Egilsen in Stykkishólmur drive back to Reykjavik via Ölkelda. There’s an option to visit Thingvellir National Park, before returning to Reykjavik. On the final day, bathe in the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal pool surrounded by lava fields.

The Iceland Wilderness Adventure costs from £1,610 per person including flights and transfers. It operates year round, but the chances of seeing the aurora borealis are much higher from September through to March. For more information visit scottdunn.com/icelandadventure

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