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).
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).
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
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
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).
Perched between windswept beaches and twisting lava fields, Hotel Búðir is a poetic hideaway. Rooms
have elegant, understated décor and many command views out to sea or up to the
volcano of Snæfellsjökull (Snaefellsnes; from £110).
Hotel Rangá is one of Iceland’s
most luxurious retreats. Cosy wood-panelled rooms have stripy fabrics and
verandas, while the World Pavilion suites are themed around different continents
(between Hella and Hvolsvöllur; from £180).
Keflavík is Iceland’s international hub – Iceland Express operates flights from
Edinburgh, Gatwick and Stansted (from £160). Icelandair flies from Glasgow, Heathrow
and Manchester (from £200). A network of long-distance buses runs in summer,
covering most places on the Ring Road – the main highway that circles the
island. Details are available from the BSI
consortium in Reykjavík. If you plan to get off the beaten track, however, it’s
worth taking private transport, with car hire available at Keflavík (from £55
per day; budget.com).
The article 'Mini guide to Iceland's activities' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.