Alone at Last: Iceland

Escaping the crowds in Iceland, Ute Junker discovers paradise off the beaten track.
February 2022

Glaciers. Geysers. Lava fields and black sand beaches. It’s no secret that when it comes to otherworldly landscapes, Iceland scoops the pool. But astonishing natural wonders are not the only reason that Iceland is topping many people’s post-COVID travel lists. Just as appealing for travellers who have survived stints in lockdown is Iceland’s wealth of wild, uncrowded spaces. In Europe’s least-densely populated country, you don’t have to go too far to get off the beaten track and find your own patch of paradise.

Fortunately, Icelanders are just as excited about welcoming back visitors. Having done an excellent job of containing COVID, it was the first country in Europe to re-open its borders. It has even unveiled a brand-new attraction: a newly-hatched volcano, which sprang into life back in March. Locals and visitors alike have been heading to the Reykjanes Peninsula near Reykjavik to take in the action, which often includes lava snaking its way down a closed valley.

There aren’t many places where you can take a day trip from the capital to an active volcano, and that is another of the beauties of Iceland. No matter how much, or how little, time you have up your sleeve, you can tick off plenty of marvels.

Short of time? Concentrate your explorations on the southwest corner of the country, where the easily-accessible attractions range from the Reynisdrangar sea stacks, jagged needles of black basalt rock rising from the sea, to naturally-heated thermal pools where you can soak up a dose of mineral-rich goodness. If you have the luxury of being on a more leisurely schedule, plenty of other adventures await further afield.

Either way, the one essential item to take with you is a local guide. Your guide will not just introduce you to locals and safely navigate the island’s roughest terrain, they will also share insights into local life, providing that sense of connection that makes a holiday unforgettable.

My guide, Magnus, has a hearty laugh, a steady hand on the wheel, and a fondness for good coffee that makes him my perfect travel companion. As we start each day, he briefs me on what lies ahead. No matter how well I’ve done my research, I soon discover, he always has another layer of knowledge.

Take our visit to Thingvellir National Park. I’ve done my reading and I’m confident I know what’s in store. Thingvellir is a very special place. One of Iceland’s three UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is the only one listed for both cultural and natural reasons. More than a thousand years ago, Iceland’s national parliament, the Althing, was established here. The other remarkable thing about Thingvellir is that it is a rift valley where two tectonic plates meet, pushing away from each other with such force that 2.5cm of new land is created every year.

I may know all of this, but Magnus knows something I don’t. “The public toilets here have one of the best views in Iceland,” he tells me with such a straight face that I am convinced he is joking. When I head inside, however, I realise he is right – the toilets have a magnificent full-length window, facing away from all passers-by, looking out across the moody Icelandic landscape.

Thingvellir sits on the route known as the Golden Circle, perhaps Iceland’s most popular drive. The itinerary’s attractions include the Geysir geothermal area in the Haukadalur Valley, a place where the ground is littered with steam vents, bubbling mud pots and hot springs. The most famous sights here are two geysers – Geysir, the earliest documented geyser in Europe, and its nearby sibling, Strokkur.

Geysir is often inactive these days – after 10,000 years, who can blame it? – but Strokkur more than makes up for it. It erupts spectacularly every six to 10 minutes, often shooting its plume of steam 40 metres into the air.

They call Iceland the land of fire and ice but the more I explore, the more I realise that what really defines the island’s landscape is water. The meltwater from the glaciers that cover 10 per cent of the terrain – containing enough ice to spread a 35-metre-thick layer over the entire island – shows up over and over again. It’s there in the super-heated steam of the geysers. It’s also present in ice-studded lagoons, in bubbling rivers, in heated pools and in underwater rivulets that help sustain Iceland’s moorlands and moss-covered lava fields. It’s so clean, you can dip your water bottle into just about any water source and fill up safely.

Above all, the water shows up in waterfalls: so many, that no-one has bothered counting them all. More than 200 have names, including Skogafoss, a 25-metre-wide cascade that plunges 60 metres, and Seljalandsfoss, where you can walk behind the falls and admire the cascade from a different angle.

The best-known of all, however, is Gullfoss, a lace-like two-tiered cascade of water that plummets into a narrow gorge with such force that a veil of spray hangs permanently in the air above. In summer, up to 140 cubic metres pour over the edge every second. When the sun comes out, light refracts through the suspended droplets, creating thousands of tiny rainbows.

It is not just the named waterfalls that are impressive. One of my favourite excursions is the day we spend exploring the hidden valley of Thorsmork, or Thor’s Valley. The beauty of this valley, accessible by a road so forbidding that it is best travelled by Superjeep, lies in its contrasts: the glowing greens of moss and fern, interspersed with lava fields and encircled by bare mountain peaks.

We hike through narrow canyons, where birds dwell high in the cliff walls, sometimes jumping from rock to rock through ever-flowing water, to the far end of Stakkholtsgja canyon, where we find a waterfall tumbling into a small cave. Light bounces off the mossy rocks and bathes the cave in a gentle emerald glow. It’s a magical moment.

Not all of our adventures involve spectacular surrounds. Magnus promises to take me to his favourite restaurant, which is an eye-opener: a restaurant inside a greenhouse. Iceland’s landscape may be remarkably devoid of trees – the result of centuries of volcanic activity – but one thing the island has plenty of is greenhouses. These are cheap to run, thanks to the country’s surfeit of geothermal energy, and allow Iceland to grow its own apples, bananas and even kiwifruit.

Magnus introduces me to farmers Helena and Knútur Rafn Ármann, who harvest almost 400 tonnes of tomatoes ever year. The restaurant menu is limited, with every dish built around tomatoes. Magnus recommends the tomato soup – it’s the best you’ll ever taste, he promises – and as usual, he’s right.

Magnus has more going for him than just driving skills and restaurant recommendations, however. He also has great jokes up his sleeve. When he gives me a rundown on Iceland’s unique botany – the country’s lack of tall trees, he explains, is the result of hundreds of years of volcanic activity – he winds up the explanation, as he often does, with a joke. “What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?” he asks me. “I don’t know, what do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?” Magnus smiles. “You stand up.”

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