Lily, Milly and Cordelia, from our Europe team, recently had an epic adventure tour of Iceland. From getting lost on snowmobiles to tasting some of Iceland’s finest food, Lily writes about all their incredible experiences.
Iceland, for such a small island with so few inhabitants is triumphantly dominating. The pristine artic extremes and volcanic force-field will consume you, and the contrasts of landscape will shock and excite you. If that isn’t enough persuasion, the mermaid greens of the Northern Lights are guaranteed to leave you completely enchanted by nature. Positioned on the encounter of the European and North American tectonic plates, the volcanically and geologically active landscape is staggeringly beautiful for either a winter wonderland break or a summer eco-warrior adventure. The European trio Milly, Dilly and Lily went on tour to explore this magical place where Bjork was born.
Our expedition to Europe’s Nordic extreme began with deliciously purple WowAir who safely transported us to Keflavik airport, in the South-West corner of the country and a short drive to the capital Reykjavik. The 45 minute journey ‘to the end of the earth’ sets the tone as you look out to murals of wide desolate expanses, like a crumbly black desert of lava and rock.
We were based in Reykjavik, along with the majority of the Icelandic population and the gateway to many of the incredible excursions you can embark upon including hiking on a glacier, snorkeling between tectonic plates in crystalline waters, caving under lava fields and the terrifyingly brilliant snowmobiling. Having an action packed few days of excursions planned, we were immediately whisked off for our first adventure, the Northern lights hunt. Our ride is a house sized jeep and we excitably clamber aboard, the harsh chill in the air adding to the thrill. Traveling into the Nordic darkness, we crane our necks trying to seize a glimpse of the elusive lights. Our guide gets us hard hatted up and leads us scrambling through the Icelandic underworld, showing us incredible caves formed from lava. These remarkable rock formations are one of the marvels left behind by volcanic activity on the island. The tour was brought to life by our guide Svavar’s Icelandic myths and tales, the drama heightened rather alarmingly by him turning off all the headlamps, leaving us consumed in darkness for an awkward few moments. Now starving, we are taken for a delicious langoustine supper, after which the sky bursts into life. We were delighted by the glowing green ribbons racing across the sky, curling and wriggling before our eyes. Left spellbound by nature’s strobe light show we were full of shellfish and the satisfaction of seeing the phenomenal Aurora Borealis. As we re-entered Reykjavik we are treated to a musical snack of Icelandic trance from the enthused Svavar.
Next day we visited the famous Hotel Borg, lovingly restored to its 1930s glory and an art deco delight in the center of Reykjavik. All of the rooms with views over the main square and stately parliament buildings were smartly finished and the heated bathroom marble floors make a cozy addition post excursion. With the promise of a spa being built the Borg is a reliable classic for an Icelandic break. We were then shown Borg’s more modern and sleeker sister next door, Apotek hotel. Still adorning the flagship neutral greys, Apotek incorporates lovely parquet flooring and a deliciously welcoming grill restaurant which is the ideal setting for a warming post excursion drink. Lunch of reindeer burgers was hoofed down before a look around the Radisson Blu 1919, carrying the chains esteemed name and with its arguably better facilities including a well-equipped gym and an elegant hotel bar and dining area. Each room was identically modern, crisp and comfortable. Finally we visited 101 Hotel, full of installations, artwork and quirky design touches that have afforded this creative hub its status as the most uniquely chic place to stay in the center of Reykjavik.
That afternoon we brave the peak of Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran parish church that cascades, Mordor-esque over Reykjavik. The designer based it on the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape and you can get the lift to the peak – a terrifying wind turbine commanding excellent views over the city. In winter Reykjavik only experiences a few hours of daylight, and so with darkness and the cold winter bite soon engulfing the city again we headed to Lobster Shack on the harbor to sample this famed Icelandic dish. True to name, the low-ceilinged hut was full to the bream 😉 and we perched on wooden benches whilst a menacing life-size replica of the original one-eyed fisherman who started the place scoped us out from the corner. The pearly pink steaming sweet broth marbled with cream was swirling with uneven hunks of melt-in-the-mouth lobster and generously accompanied by a loaf of bread each.
The next morning we head to Southern Iceland and it feels as if we are traveling in the early hours of dawn as the city buildings get sparser and the first light of the day skims the rooftops, however in reality it is almost noon. The South Coast of Iceland is home to some of the country’s most spectacular natural phenomenon’s and creates a dramatic contrast to the urban Icelandic-chic of Reykjavik’s cafes, bars and restaurants, the perfect combination for a dual stay break. As the city lights slip behind us we speed past a panorama of black lava fields and crystalline mountains topped with powdery snow, one of the most scenic drives I have ever been on. We arrive at Hotel Grimsborgir, like a luxury Centre Parcs blanketed in white snow, this collection of wonderfully spacious apartments that sleep up to eight are ideal for families and groups. Gaze out over the crispy white snow from your cozy chalet or bask in your private hot tub and take your front row seat for the spectacle of nature’s dazzling light show. In keeping with the surrounding the décor is suitably clean cut, white and fresh. And the owner will even patriotically fly your national flag outside your apartment. Stay in the main body of the hotel and there are lovely double room options, all spaciously-designed with huge plasma TV screens donning the walls.
Next we are off to Hotel Ranga, which, guarded by a 10ft polar bear who dominates the lobby, is a picturesque oversized log cabin with 51 luxury rooms and suites situated in the remote Icelandic wilderness. The suites hilariously transport you to different corners of the globe, Japan is finished in dark wood and bamboo and features Shoji blinds and even a traditional steep-sided and worryingly small wooden Japanese bathtub. Each suite is completely unique and design touches to complement each theme have been carefully considered, adding otherworldly flair and to the thrill of Iceland’s unconventional charm. There is even a dining area cut into the floor in order to create the illusion you are sitting cross-legged on the floor without compromising on comfort as your legs dangle below. Enter Africa and you are thrust into a tropcial rainforest of tribal prints, bongo drums and towering giraffes. This hotel is ideal for Northern Lights junkies as the lack of light pollution makes it one of the best viewing spots and staff will even wake you up in the middle of the night, upon request of course.
Our first experience is now due: hiking on a glacier. As we drive away from Ranga it feels as if we are wheeling over the moon’s crater surface as the surroundings turn to lava fields fringed by craggy rocks cloaked in moss as far as the eye can see. Truly a scene from Lord of the Rings, the epic landscape is barren, bold and will blow you away. We park and hike up to the gateway of the glacier, meandering alongside the fresh water stream in single file. Icelandic’s are fiercely proud of their heritage and their uber clean water and the guide doesn’t hesitate to tempt us into a sip straight from the river’s mouth. They even relish the subtle whiff of sulphur that carries throughout the volcanic island, absurdly inhaling it along with the crisp fresh air. We tread over crumbly black lava topped with brilliant white snow, like crunching over crushed Oreo cookies and soon enough the glacier triumphantly glistens overhead, like a mega fox’s mint. The glacier’s skin is glassy, translucent, crystallised and looks good enough to drink. Armed with crampons and pickaxes we mount the beastly ice sculpture and our guide manoeuvres us past crevices with grimacing drops into the abyss. The peak of the glacier is layered like Vienetta, and the icy aquamarine marbled effect of its sides completely mesmerising. Then on to walk behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall, a staggering bullet of water that towers over us catapults water from the sky. Cold and now wet we head back to the civilization of Reykjavik. That evening we are treated to a fusion feast in Sushi Samba, a restaurant that satisfyingly marries Japanese and Icelandic flavors, two cuisines that hold the celebration of fresh seafood at their core.
Another day, another breakfast in complete darkness, we are due to embark on our Golden Circle tour, an adventure showcasing the best of Iceland’s phenomenal geology. We are bundled into another humongous jeep with another jolly guide who passes the time gossiping about Beyoncé and Jay Z’s current visit. First stop was the tremendous Gullfoss waterfall, rivalling Niagra falls as one of nature’s most astounding masterpieces, hurtling water over the edge of an enormous crevice. Warmed by a lunch of traditional Icelandic lamb, we then embark on the jaw-clenching snowmobile ride, terrifying, euphoric, yet completely unforgettable. Three fluorescent orange Michelin men waddle apprehensively up to a pack of snowmobiles obediently poised in two neat rows. The machines roar as we start the engines and we are led in single file by the guide over the blizzardy wilderness. The snowmobiles are heavy and larger than jet-skis, you feel every bump as the skis plough through the snow, cutting straight through the powdery meringue texture of the glacier like a knife. Trying with all my might to stay aboard my arctic bucking bronco, my palms start to sweat. Or maybe that is the handlebars with inbuilt hand warmers… distracted I’ve now lost the group and the faint orange outline of my predecessor is suddenly consumed by the cotton wool cloud, thick with snow. As visibility is only a few meters ahead if you lose sight of the group you have to stop completely, or risk getting left behind forever, gobbled up by the powdery puff. Without the roar of the snowmobile the atmosphere soon becomes eerie but thankfully it is not long before the guide slowly comes into focus behind my steamed up helmet screen. I re-join the group again, as we snail our way, one at a time over the miles of arctic bliss, cascading over the brilliant snow that is literally glowing white.
Hopping off our snowmobiles our next stop is the almighty geysers. A rare natural phenomenon, the proximity of magma in volcanic areas causes a hydrothermal explosion as pressurized water shoots meters into the air. We approach the steaming, bubbling cauldron with caution and are mesmerized as the bubbles grow more aggressive, like an aggravated sea monster fighting for air deep under the earth’s core. Suddenly turbo jet bursts from the ground, spraying the surrounding tourists and sending them slipping and sliding over the icy ground, an entertaining show. Our final stop is the enchanting Thingvellier National Park, a perfectly formed still snow-dome scene of incredible beauty. Lying in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the North American and Eurasian Plates can be clearly seen in the cracks and faults that traverse the region. It’s this unusual tectonic and volcanic environment that adds a real supernatural edge. Home to Iceland’s largest natural lake, the drift between the tectonic plates has afforded the most magical unparalleled visibility under water. Almost illusion-like, this is one of the most incredible places to snorkel and scuba-dive.
That evening, we rounded off our trip with a dining experience at The Fish Market, chef extraordinaire Hrefna Sætran’s masterpiece. The tasting menu is a taste-bud journey, dangerously delicious and incredibly inventive. Icelandic classics such as robata grilled minke whale, smoked puffin and grilled mountain lamb were served alongside fresh sushi and crisp white wines exclusively paired with the dishes.
Iceland is a destination like no other, a completely cathartic adventure that will leave you spellbound by the wildly rustic landscape and the undeniable pull of its strong geothermal force. Aside from the casual incest, believe all the myths and legends the Icelandic’s tell you in order to justify the unruly landscape, it just adds to the charming otherworldly absurdity of this once in a lifetime destination.
For more information on Iceland, call one of our Europe Consultants on 020 8682 5080 or visit scottdunn.com.