By Nicola Kelly
There was a strange sense of silent camaraderie and anticipation among the group of people dotted along the shoreline in Reykjavik as we looked out across the bay of Iceland’s capital.
Forget the freezing temperatures, we, like every other tourist who travels to the “Land of Fire and Ice” as the country is known, had one goal – to see the Northern Lights dance across the night sky.
The multi-coloured spectacle is elusive, whether you pay to go on a tour that takes you out of town to the best viewing spots or join the locals as we did. One moment only the stars were visible in the inky depths; the next we were treated to a display of shimmering iridescence, one moment lime green, the next tinged with pink and purple, suspended for a few minutes high above us before fading back into black.
Yet even if you’re not treated to nature’s greatest light show, Iceland has so many other sights to leave you awestruck.
Opting for one of the Golden Circle guided coach tours we headed to Pingvellir National Park, the site of a stunning rift valley and the Rock of Law, the first Viking parliament. we marvelled at the volcanic crater at Lake Kerid and felt the spray of the icy Gulfoss Waterfall as the River Hvita plummeted into a 32-metre deep crevice.
Then it was onto the geothermal area of Geysir as the active hot spring of Strokkur bubbled and spouted steaming water 30 metres into the air every six minutes.
There was a picture around every corner on our day-long tour which took us around the south west side of the island, passing fields of Icelandic horses, which are really pony sized, but don’t mention that to any of the locals.
These long lived and hardy animals are something Icelanders are proud of, and laws prevent any other horses being imported into the country to ensure they remain disease free.
There are plenty of different tours to choose from – most range from £60 per person up – and while I’m normally an independent traveller, the potential sudden weather changes, bright sunshine one minute, sudden snow storms the next, made me less confident about hiring a car.
That and the huge £2,500 excess I would have had to pay if something went wrong!
Reykjavik itself is a small city so it is easy to get around and there is a good local bus service. We had a 72-hour travel card that not only allowed us to use the buses but got us discounts at some restaurants and museums and believe me, every little saving helps.
Be warned, Iceland is not a budget destination.
Want a glass of wine and a beer? Don’t expect much change out of £19. Our cheapest meal was two burgers, a Diet Coke and a beer, coming in at just over £55 which by UK standards is pricey.
We didn’t give puffin, whale or fermented shark a go, even though they do feature on some menus. We did however go to the wonderful Fish Company restaurant, an absolute must if visiting Reykjavik.
Opting for the sherry marinated reindeer carpaccio with crepes purée, hazelnut and oyster mushrooms, flash frozen foie gras and Parmesan starter to share, followed by Arctic char with stout foam, smoked emulsion, dill and trout caviar vinaigrette and apple purée. This was topped off with vegan carrot cake and lemongrass ice cream.
The flavours were delicious. If the a la carte menu is a bit much for your budget, go at lunchtime and have one of the set menus – also just as good.
While the British might claim to know a thing or two about fish and chips, they could take lessons from Harry’s Seafood and Grill Restaurant which served up the best we’d ever had. And if you like lamb, it too is a speciality not just at this restaurant but at others around the city.
Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, there is a restaurant for everyone. Even a Hard Rock Cafe for the many American tourists who favour Iceland – it’s only five and half hours from New York.
We decided to stay for seven nights but realistically you could do it in five.
Although cold at night, dipping down to -4C, we were lucky with the weather in early March and it hovered around 7C with plenty of sunshine.
Something we took advantage of when we visited the stunning Hallgrimskirkja church with its distinctly curved spire and side wings. It has become an important part of Iceland’s national identity since its completion in 1986. Take a lift up to the top and it affords amazing views across the city.
Museums are plentiful. We headed to Perlan, not just because of the wonderful roof-top cafe and restaurant which is worth a visit, but it allowed us to explore the world’s first real indoor ice cave.
A fascinating film about the country’s newest volcanic eruption (2021) revealed the Icelandic spirit of adventure with islanders just feet away from the molten lava spewing towards them.
And in the planetarium there is a multi-award winning film Aurora, about the Northern Lights, which explains what causes them. And if you aren’t lucky enough to see them in real life, you can pretend you have.
Intrigued, we also visited the world’s only Phallological Museum or penis museum to you and me.
Founded in 1997 by historian and teacher, Sigurdur Hjartarson, it started as a joke when he was given a bull penis by his teaching staff. It became an ongoing joke but now there are hundreds of biological phalluses from Icelandic mammal and fauna as well as 100 foreign species.
And the museum gained a new member – sorry, couldn’t resist – last year in Jimi Hendrix. It’s a plaster cast of his penis, made before his death in 1970 by artist Cynthia Albritton, who specialised in such unusual creations.
Of course no trip to Iceland would be complete without a trip to a geothermal lagoon and we chose the relatively new kid on the block, The Sky Lagoon, a short bus or taxi ride from Reykjavik.
The Ritual experience, as it is known, was a relaxing bit of luxury which gave us our own dressing room and shower. Dressed in our bathing suits we headed to the healing warm waters of the lagoon.
A bar serving alcohol and juices made the perfect first stop to soak in the views before moving to the glacier-fresh plunge pool. The young Icelandic attendant claimed he wouldn’t judge us if we didn’t dip more than a toe in… but we knew he really would.
It took our breath away and I don’t think I’ve ever seen my husband run so quick as he sought the warmth of the sauna. With it’s huge picture window overlooking the bay, it was hard to tear ourselves away.
Next it was the cold fog-mist spray, they claim all this hot cold business is good for you, maybe they’re right, but I was grateful to apply the Sky Lagoon’s signature all over body scrub and bag my place in the steam room to warm up again.
My husband was sceptical the scrub would have much effect but within minutes our skin was baby smooth, an effect which lasted a couple of days. So if you do go, pick some up on your way out from the shop. It’s about £30 but definitely worth it.
We felt so relaxed and healthy afterwards, it felt wrong to have a glass of wine, well, almost.
There are plenty of well situated hotels. We chose the Centerhotel in the city’s main shopping street, Laugavegur. Our room was so comfortable and well heated, we had to turn the radiator down for most of our stay.
Perhaps the best tip I can give you is don’t get a taxi into Reykjavik from the airport. We didn’t think and our eyes started spinning as much as the taxi meter as we realised the fare would be £150 one way.
Instead book yourself an airport bus (£120 for two for a return trip) and they will pick up from individual hotels.
For more information on travelling to Iceland go to www.visiticeland.com