If only mad dogs and Englishmen venture out in the midday sun, what can be made of the handfuls of layered up, padded out Europeans and Americans that give the cold shoulder to winter warmth in favour of snow-clad volcanic mountains of Iceland to blow away the post Christmas blues? Tellingly, the natives claim there are ‘two Iceland holidays’, their summer and their winter, each with their own must sees, must dos and must eats. The latter is a question of taste, but for those were recently educated in the wonders of Icelandic cuisine by Hesten Blumenthal’s interview on The Graham Norton Show, don’t panic! As well as Ram scrota, hakarl and ammonia marinated skate (yes, apparently it is a delicacy…) this miniscule population are also big fans of hamburgers, pasta and curry. Islenska Hamborkara Fabrikan, for example is a burger bar located in the middle of, well pretty much nowhere and a favourite of all. Proudly displayed is the ‘current’ Icelandic population which stood at 319,092 and judging by baby bumps and frequent public announcements, is quickly rising. Whilst this particular burger bar boasts it provided the last meal of the cold war of the front page of it’s witty and engrossing newspaper style menu, the staff maintain the consistently above-and beyond service found across Reykjavik.
Please note, the Northern Lights photographs were provided by the tour guide who was better equipped to capture the images. The lights looked white to the eye in reality but these images were genuinely seen through the lense of his camera.
Food of course, is not the primary draw to the rift-riding produce of continental plate movement, famed instead for it’s natural wonders (or nuisances, for those grounded by it’s volcanic grumble late last year). From the depths of geothermal activity warming the cockles of weary travellers in scattered hot pools and spewing geezers (not so inviting to climb into) to the dizzy heights of the Northern lights, this country really is alive all day and night. Far removed from city chaos, activities include whale watching, horse riding, glacier walks, skiing and even helicopter trips over active volcanoes. A little flexibility may prove useful, Aurora Borealis (Northern lights) for example are frequently misrepresented as obedient, stable and unavoidable infusions of the sky that patiently wait to be photographed between certain months of the year. Rarely do people reveal the character and mischievous performance that will have your coach driver racing around hills for hours looking for the darkest viewing spot and you, the observer exercising your reflex abilities as you leap on and off the coach feeling at times a little foolish for believing such a thing even exists. It may not be your first, or even second night that the clouds retreat, but however long your wait all notion of time will evade you when, disbelievingly your eyes begin to adjust to the faint, unfamiliar quivers of light as they begin to take a grip on the surface of the Earth’s atmosphere. A few gasps and blinks later there is no accounting for what you may see, but nothing can fully prepare you for the emerging penetration of shimmering smatters of light, tentatively gaining confidence, growing, changing and dancing until full unmistakable streaks bear down, moving back and forth as if to get themselves a clearer view of their awestruck audience. Feeling certain that the 10 minutes of activity have burned their imprint on the memories of his faithful companions, an ever enthusiastic tour guide claps with delight and ironically exclaims ‘been there, done that’. Indeed the lights, when in the mood, certainly satisfy. A surprise re-visit over Reykjavik town centre on Valentine’s day in short punctuated bursts of green indicates the more generous persona of the phenomena. Whilst non-appearance of the lights would not be enough to put a dampener on your holiday, it is worth checking that the tour you choose offers second chances for free as the guides will ensure the best chance of vision.
Having ‘been there and done that’, the winter months are some of the best to brave the Blue Lagoon. Despite it’s somewhat generic name, this geothermal pool situated between Keflavik and Reykjavik is an under-hyped gem of a natural retreat that will easily steal hours from under your nose as you uncover it’s hidden secrets. This is the exceptional occasion where you will find the natives particularly un-forthcoming with information, preferring to amuse themselves with the sight of scantily clad newcomers launching themselves from the comfort of the main building, across the bridge to the sanctity of brilliant blue pool bellowing promising clouds of steam across a backdrop of snowy mountains when really they could advise their indoor pool route to relaxation heaven. Be warned, this short journey feels like running a naked marathon through the Alps when escaping the bitter boulders of hail that the skies may donate to the experience – plan, prepare and find that door! A bad turn of weather is surprisingly rare and when it does occur, thankfully short. Don’t let such a natural mean streak prevent you seeking refuge in one of the two steam rooms or sauna stashed away in the obscurities of cavernous recesses, or settling in a quiet cave with a pint and an ice cream. As with most geothermic pools the Blue Lagoon claims the silica gel, minerals and algae that settle along the bottom remedies skin conditions including sclerosis as well as anti-aging properties (explained in scientific depth on www.bluelagoon.com), but smothering your face in goo is always a good source of entertainment, regardless if you come out looking rejuvenated and youthful or like an undiscovered spa-monster. The lagoon also has spa treatments available and a restaurant to break up the day, however if you are not looking to splash out some snacks for the return trip will probably suffice.
The city of Reykjavik will keep the average explorer occupied for a day or so, with it’s less revered but disconcertingly fascinating street art buried within the charm of the ‘tourist’ town, or Reykjavick Cathedral overseeing the daily activity, illuminated from inside after sunset only a minutes’ walk from the high street, Laugavegur.
Whilst most things feel a little more pricey than what Brits are used to experiencing on holiday, the efficiency and genuine desire to please of the staff and locals allow visitors to have confidence that there is limited chance of any holiday nightmare, inconvenience or even imperfection. Newly opened Fjallkonan Bakariid is a fantastic example of this, conjuring up fresh waffles with jam, cream and chocolate in no more than 20 minutes of the random request, complete with playful banter. A typical example of the cosy coffee houses dotted throughout the town, this cafe makes both visitors and locals feel instantly at home. Similarly the restaurants will leave you feeling spoilt and reluctant to leave, such as Caruso which used to be a family home that has been beautifully updated, each floor has a different but equally inviting atmosphere, perfect for small, close groups of friends.
Booking trips to the mountains, horse riding, trekking or quad biking is easily done from the tourist information office. Prices are consistent and the trips available are seemingly endless, whether you want to go for a day glacier walking or several on horse-back, the staff are willing to explain the tours, geography, history and quite possibly their life stories if you have the time! Many of these experiences are probably attributed to the quiet winter season, however the community spirit is very real. Tourists are expected to be respectful to the environment and play by the rules, and for doing so are rewarded by the hospitality of the people, land, and if you’re lucky the sky at night.