International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
Icelanders might be a peaceful people, but their homeland is a place of geological violence. Spewing volcanoes and forbidding lava fields make for a land of beautiful, barren expanses and infinite adventure.
The Blue Lagoon, an Icelandic icon, is an artificial spa set in an eerie lava field a short distance southwest of Reykjavík. The lagoon itself is landscaped with wooden decks, cavernous saunas and piping hot waterfalls, with its mineral-rich waters fed by the futuristic Svartsengi geothermal plant next door. There’s also a café and restaurant (Grindavík; admission from £28).
Húsavik is Iceland’s whalewatching capital – a fishing town of colourful houses huddled around a small harbour. Two companies in town offers tours in search of these peaceful creatures, spying minke whales, humpback whales and sometimes blue whales. The original outfit, North Sailing, offers a ‘Whales, Puffins and Sails’ itinerary aboard a traditional schooner, setting sail for the ‘puffin island’ of Lundey (Hafnarstett 11; from £55 per person).
Sea kayaking is gaining in popularity in Iceland, with the calmer, more accessible waters of the Eastfjords proving an excellent spot for a paddle. Kaj Kayak Club in the town of Neskaupstaður offers two-hour guided trips around Norðfjörður, exploring sea caves and encountering resident birdlife along the way. Midnight kayaking trips can also be taken during the summer (00 354 863 9939; Kirkjufjara; tours from £35 per person).
The Hornstrandir Peninsula is one of Iceland’s emptiest quarters, with deep fjords, vertiginous cliffs and bleak tundra. It also offers magnificent walking – unless you’re an experienced hiker with your own GPS, it’s best to go with a guide. West Tours offers four-day hikes (Ísafjörður; four-day hikes from £370 per person).
The trail from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk – also known as the Laugavegurinn (Hot Spring Route) – is one of Iceland’s most well-trodden, and with good reason. Hikers pass through a variety of landscapes, through lava fields, across black obsidian ridges and over mountain-tops. The four-day hike can be completed by anyone in reasonable shape, ovenighting in huts or campsites. Book well ahead for the former.
An otherworldly body of water teeming with birdlife, Lake Mývatn was created by volcanic eruptions just over two millennia ago. Its eastern shore makes for a fascinating half-day hike – running five miles from the village of Reykjahlíð to Dimmuborgir, passing the scorching hot waters of the Grjótagjá cave on the way. Hike and Bike offers regular guided tours of the area (Reykjahlíð; tours from £30 per person).
Made famous by Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Snæfellsjökull is a glacier-covered stratovolcano (see ‘The knowhow’, p128). It hasn’t erupted in 1,900 years: Snjófell offers summer snowmobile tours traversing the glacier. From the top, there are staggering views to Faxaflói Bay and the Westfjords (Arnarstapi; tours from £110 per person).
Close to Hekla – one of Iceland’s most notorious volcanoes – the town of Hella makes for a good starting point for horse-riding trips in the shadow of the mountain. Hekluhestar offers a range of guided tours trotting across the lava fields and ash-coated landscapes nearby, from short excursions to multi-day trips (Austvaðsholt; tours from £120 per person).
The by-product of a sub-sea eruption in the 1960s, Surtsey was once famous as the world’s newest island. Today, it is used by scientists and is off-limits to visitors, but it’s still possible to spy on its bleak mountains and beaches from a boat – Viking Tours runs 3–4-hour group trips by arrangement, sailing from Heimaey in the Vestmannaeyjar Islands (Tangagötu 7; tours from £70 per person).
Where to stay
Guesthouse Baldursbrá is a convivial guesthouse in Reykjavík, set on a quiet road close to Tjörnin lake. Rooms are of a decent size, and there’s a pleasant garden with a jacuzzi and sauna (Laufasvegur 41; from £45).