It was 8.30am as I watched fat puffs of steam rise genially from the blowholes that peppered the dark, frosty scene beyond the window. I was having breakfast at the base of a dormant volcano inside the James Bond-esque ION hotel in Thingvellir National Park. I spotted more smoke wafting gently from a stream in the distance. It was adorned by gnarled lava formations that loomed in the rising sun – I later found out that it carried boiling hot water through the fields of snow and eventually ended up in the little lake a few miles from where I sat.
With such Martian landscapes, it’s little wonder the Vikings told such compelling tales of dragons and trolls. Surrounded by astonishing deep geological faults, parched lava fields and craggy rocks cloaked in moss, the biker boots I was wearing suddenly seemed very inappropriate.
Yep, this is exactly the sort of drama I’d anticipated at my dad’s 50th Birthday party. As a part time polar explorer, Iceland was not only the ideal place to share the Arctic’s awesomeness with family and friends, it’s also located a convenient three hour flight from LGW. So, armed with thermals, enthusiasm and thirty-six Lola’s cupcakes, off we flew to celebrate Dad’s half century.
Despite its majestic geography, the land of Ice and Fire is enchantingly pretty and silent on the surface. Frozen turquoise lakes, kaleidoscopic expanses of glittering virgin snow and bonbon coloured sunrises were straight out of a Studio Ghibli film. Morning was just about breaking at 9am when I was jolted from my existential breakfast moment – a fleet of 6×6 ice trucks pulled up, each of them complete with a hunky Icelandic guide in seal fur gloves. These guys were the real deal – their jolly faces belying years of hardcore outdoor activity in these frigid climes. Well, this was certainly going to be a day of vigorous exploration.
I use the word ‘exploring’ lightly of course. Activities involving myself and snow mean that coordination and elegance are immediately relinquished – the Wolf-Princess-chic I had earlier imagined quickly descends into wooly-mammoth-on-skateboard territory..
My dad was in his element – festooned in his genuine exploration apparel, he exchanged high-fives with his Transantarctic team buddies whilst my sister and I posed for photos in our inappropriate footwear (note: I was right about biker boots being bad form) and swore about how fucking cold it was…the contrast was indeed humorous. So off we went….
Iceland offers myriad activities for all manner of interests and seasons. The daring can scuba dive between tectonic plates whilst equine enthusiasts may wish to ride the unique Icelandic horses through the tundra.
Many (AKA me) will be just fine viewing things from the warmth and safety of a large vehicle. We drove the short distance to Pengvillir National Park where the American and European tectonic plates meet. The 10.15am sunrise we watched was breathtaking in the truest sense of the word. I doubt I will ever see a more beautiful sky.
After a fairly long drive through a deserted Snowscape, we found ourselves above the clouds, the sun enormous in the sky. We were taken into the Langjokull Ice Cave, a 300m walk into a 150km glacier. The ice had taken hundreds of years to form and would take around 1000 years to reach the lake. Although dark, it was mesmerising to see the ice turn from white to blue as we walked deeper into the glacier’s belly. At one point we were looking up into a 100m deep crevasse. Below is its tiny, unassuming entrance.
After a brief stop for lunch, we headed to the Hruanfosser waterfalls.
Insane right? Formed when a volcano erupted under a waterfall, this turquoise gem of gorgeousness seems to spill out of nowhere and crash into a tumbling froth beneath you. You can get remarkably close to the action…like health and safety defying close. My sister Poppy skidded dangerously close to the edge (the guides had bought wine).
(my brothers and the birthday boy)
Once back at the hotel, we took brief, sulfuric smelling showers (the water comes from underground springs and is terribly good for your skin) before racing to the hotel’s Northern Lights bar for some organic cocktails. The ION hotel itself is a wonder. Evocative of a super-villain’s lair, its sleek concrete facade juts out from the base of a Volcano. It’s supported by huge, driftwood like beams and fronted by a gleaming glass facade. This is where the bar is located and, as its name would suggest, a prime place to spot the Northern Lights.
There were eighteen of us at the party, so we took a coach into Reykjavik for dinner at Fish Market, a smart Icelandic restaurant serving Asiatic takes on traditional classics. We feasted on bitter lemon Arctic Char, smoked puffin with lychee glaze and next-level sticky pork ribs. Sadly, my phone died shortly after taking this photo.. Behold smoked puffin.Post dinner we headed to Austur, one of the hottest nightclubs in the city and an absolute MUST. Think Save The Last Dance meets Vodka Rev and you’ll get the picture. In a blur of blonde hair and upper arm tattoos, both ladies and gents twerked the night away to Ne-Yo and Omarion. Your feet will stick to the floor….it’s fairly mega.
After a wild night partying like Vikings, it was time to head back to planet earth and make the long trip home. The bus journey back to the hotel the night before had descended into quite the ruckus and not much was remembered the following morning. Luckily I had this handy hangover kit to hand.
DON’T – Let yourself get cold and ruin the day. Making sure you bring appropriate footwear is crucial. It’s freezing… Like -15 degrees Celsius freezing. You’ll need layers – thermals and goose-down ideally as well as a hat and gloves. I had to steal a hat from a friend and ended up looking even more absurd than needed. Don’t let that be you.
DO – Make the most of being outdoors. There will be A LOT of drinking followed by early starts, but you should get out as early as possible for your chance to catch early morning Northern Lights and the epic sunrises. These photos don’t do it a shred of justice – it’s intense!
BUY – Icelandic salty liquorice comes in all different sizes and textures and is absolutely fabulous. I was also pretty blown away by their chocolate. Omnon’s milk and burnt sugar was my favourite.
EAT – Langoustines are Icelands most treasured delicacy and absolutely delicious. If you see them on the menu, order it. Minke whale is a delicacy for the brave, but I couldn’t get past it’s black flesh and all the covert episodes of Whale Wars i’ve watched in the past. Try Fish Market.
STAY – We stayed at the ION Hotel. It’s chic yet pared back with a fantastic in-house restaurant serving up excellent food from the region. The Northern Light bar offers panoramic views over Lake Thingvallatn, as well as sleek wooden furnishings and beer from Iceland’s micro-breweries. There is also a geothermal pool for outdoor aurora spotting should you wish to take romance to the next level.
We flew toReykjavik, London Gatwick on the formidable Iceland Air. Flights from £194