Katie Gatens explores the dramatic landscapes and striking natural attractions of Iceland
One of my favourite moments when going on holiday is the plane doors opening and getting my first glimpse of a new country, usually accompanied by a blast of hot air and a blazing sunlight. But arriving in Iceland, I flinch as I step into the Arctic chill and breathe in the freshest gasp I’ve breathed in a long time — it feels just like inhaling pure oxygen.
Few countries in the world evoke the sense of mystery that Iceland does. This is the ‘land of fire and ice’, where volcanoes meet glaciers and vivid mossed-over lava fields stretch as far as the eye can see.
I rent a car to drive the ring-road route along the south of the island. It’s mostly a flat, easy drive with barely a car in sight, and sticking to the main roads, there’s no need for an SUV. I make the hour-long drive from Keflavik airport to the small capital city Reykjavik, where two-thirds of Iceland’s population live. With its quaint corrugated iron-clad colored houses, narrow streets and New England feel, it’s like stepping back in time.
Parking the car and checking in to the Kvosin Downtown Hotel, I waste no time pulling on my walking boots, wrapping up in more layers than my coat can contain and set off to explore Reykjavik on foot. I immediately spot the brilliant white peak of the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral towering above the low buildings and head straight there. The view from the bell tower is spectacular — brightly colored square houses fitting together like a patchwork quilt with the grey wash of the North Atlantic Ocean in the distance.
I head for the port next, and squeeze on the edge of a long communal bench in the rustic Sægreifinn restaurant. The steam from bubbling pots rouges my cheeks and I spend much of the afternoon munching on freshly caught seafood — the rich, creamy lobster soup the restaurant is famous for is the best I’ve ever tasted. After spending a few days enjoying Reykjavik, I set out to see more of the country beyond the small city. I’d heard great things about driving around the Golden Circle, which can easily be done in a day via a tour or in your own car. There are three stops on the tour, which are well signposted along the road (although a satnav is a massive plus), as well as breaks at lookout points along the way.
The landscape on the way to Thingvellir National Park feels like the closest thing to being on the moon. The weather can change drastically in five minutes and the landscape alternates between lush green fields with stocky Icelandic horses munching on grass to sheer volcanic cliff faces, the brilliant white of glaciers peeking through the black rock. Thingvellir is the site of the first Icelandic parliament and, situated between two tectonic plates, it’s possible to go scuba diving all year round between the plates in the geothermally heated water.
I walk through a deep gorge sandwiched between huge cliffs, past small waterfalls leading me up to a spectacular lookout point with a panoramic view of the National Park. Snow-capped mountains and steaming geysers pepper the horizon as shades of blue and grey melt together. Rivers and lakes weave across the landscape, their route determined by the thaw and freeze of the ice. There is a new visitor’s center where I spend over an hour learning the area’s history. I have fun buying thick woolen socks knitted with coarse Icelandic wool and eyeing up traditional lopapeysa sweaters.
The geysers of Haukadalur are the next stop. Walking past bubbling water holes, I hold my breath waiting for
the regular blasts of hot water. With the sun setting, it is a race against time to get to Gullfoss waterfall, a short drive away. I hear the deafening sound of the cascade before I see it, and teetering towards the edge of the cliff, my eye travels from the top of the falls to the dark abyss out of sight, sending shivers down my spine.
After heading back to Reykjavik and spending a lively evening in the candlelit Kaffibarinn bar, I set off east the next day along the south of the island. Driving into the twisted sprawl of lava fields, it becomes clear how otherworldly the landscape is as plumes of geyser smoke billow on the horizon. I drive past waterfalls, each more dramatic than the next.
I take my time walking around Seljalandsfoss, where it’s possible to walk behind the stream of water tumbling over the cliff edge, so that I end up in a cave behind the waterfall. Flecks of spray mist my face just inches from the pummeling torrent of icy water — a thoroughly exhilarating feeling.
Carrying on along the ring road, I stop off at the tiny non-signposted cabin by the side of the road which turns out to be the Eyjafjallajökull Erupts museum. It has a short video where you can learn about volcanic activity in Iceland in the shadow of the volcano itself. Opposite, there’s a small turning leading up a gravel road. After getting out and hiking across the loose, black pebbles through the gorge for 10 minutes I arrive at Seljavallalaug Zwembad, a geothermal swimming pool in the middle of nowhere. As I slip from the harsh wind into the piping-hot water with the view of the whole mountain range to myself, I decide it’s definitely better than any spa I’ve ever experienced.
With the sun quickly setting, allowing only a quick peek at the mighty Skógafoss waterfall, I continue along to the town of Vik, just in time to catch the shimmering green bands of the Northern Lights.
After bedding down in one of the few B&Bs in the town I spend the day walking on the black-sand beach — a mind-bending alternative to the idyllic bright white sands of travel brochures. The geometric magma cliff formations along the beach are truly hypnotic, and the swell of Arctic waves provides a stark contrast on the coal-black pebbles.
The next day I stop at Skaftafell National Park, where I pull on my crampons and go on a tour of Vatnajökull glacier. The thick slick of ice spreads over the horizon as far as the eye can see and is constantly moving and twisting, with sheer drops, trickling streams and gnarly ice sculptures jutting out from the large mass. The ice crunches as the crampons dig their teeth in and the guide explains how quickly the glacier is melting, and that this extreme beauty could be lost forever.
My last stop is the petrol-blue ice lagoon of Jökulsárlón. It feels like being at the North Pole, with white marbled icebergs floating serenely on the water, fed by the Vatnajökull glacier in the distance. I spend the morning on a boat weaving around the icebergs, spotting the odd seal swimming between the ice.
I haven’t even scratched the surface as I head back to Reykjavik to catch my flight. I’ve hardly seen or spoken to a single person on my trip, but, leaving Iceland, I feel more connected to a place than I have in a long time.