Travel: Iceland has the wow factor

The Secret Lagoon
The Secret Lagoon

Ruth Brindle takes a short break in the land of ice and fire

My first visit to Iceland was in 2001 during a stopover on my way to Orlando In Florida. At that time my overwhelming image of Keflavik airport was that it was small with few facilities and a freezer full of frozen reindeer meat the most enticing offer in the shop.

Iceland's landscape is varied and dramatic

Iceland's landscape is varied and dramatic

Fast forward to 2018 and things couldn’t be more different. This time I was in the country for a long weekend of discovery and things have moved on.

Tourism has boomed and between 2010 and 2017 has increased by an amazing 440 per cent. The American connection is still there as many of the passengers on my WOW Air flight are stopping off before boarding connecting flights to cities all over the States. Also there can’t be many airports where you are assured that even if your plane is delayed on arrival in Iceland, your connecting flight ‘will wait for you’!

Keflavik Airport is still small, but perfectly formed with all the modern facilities – coffee bars, restaurants and shops - that discerning travellers demand.

I was very impressed with the service on our two-hour budget flight with WOW. It was fun, efficient and friendly. I loved the small touches such as the notice for the bell to alert staff which read ‘put a ring on it’ and the sick bag with its Vomit-Meter putting ‘the pilot’s jokes’ at the bottom of vomit-inducing things to ‘our competitors’ prices’ at the top.

We had opted to hire a car and stay in an Air B ‘n’ B apartment 10 minutes’ drive outside the city centre, which proved a good choice as we had a lot of space, a bedroom each, a full kitchen and a big TV. After half an hour’s easy drive from the airport we met our host at the apartment and she quite generously said we could use any food in the house. This proved very valuable indeed as we discovered just how expensive Iceland is. Breakfasts and packed lunches sorted. You have to factor high prices in when planning a visit here but my advice is that it’s worth it.

On our first evening we were keen to see Reykjavik so we took the short drive, helped by our phone sat nav, into the city centre. Parking is sparse, but possible on the streets and in car parks in the capital which feels more like a town in size. Finding places to eat is easy and we opted for a restaurant near the centre. Very nice fish (cod of course) and chips and a burger and chips, no alcohol cost the equivalent of £50. Welcome to Iceland prices.

As it was raining very heavily we opted for an early night before heading out on the tourist trail around the Golden Circle the next day. This is a 147-mile tour of three of Iceland’s most spectacular sights. Of course, there are many organised coach tours to choose from if you don’t want to drive but I would say consider hiring a car. The roads are good, not busy and you have the freedom to stop, admire or visit other places along the way. We used the sat nav on our phones to get around and it was consistently brilliant although it did sound weird hearing all the amazing, complicated Icelandic words pronounced in an English accent.

But whatever mode of transport you choose you will experience so many “wow” moments along the way. As we set out on the road south west of Reykjavik on the ring road we passed changing landscapes of strange black lava expanses, impressive mountains, fields of purple lupins, herds of horses, farmland, clouds of steam rising from thermal fields and the eerie peaks of volcanoes rising in the distance. Truly amazing and awe-inspiring, other-worldly and beautiful.

Our first stop was at Pingvellir the site of Iceland’s first parliament and also where two continental tectonic plates collide. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s easy to see why. This place was used for the national assembly of Iceland between 930AD to 1798. Looking out from the vantage points you can clearly see the cracks and faults caused by the continental drift. You can wander along the biggest – Almannagja – which is canyon-like.

The one downside of this first stop on the route was a plague of tiny flies which we and our fellow tourists struggled with. Those in the know had insect beating nets over their heads!

Next on the list of stops was Geysir a geothermal field where you can watch the spectacular explosions of boiling water and steam and where the earth constantly bubbles.

Yes, it’s a tourist trap but well worth it. The biggest geyser known as Strokkur gives a performance every five to seven minutes sending a spout of water 30 metres in the air so doesn’t disappoint. Another, Blesi, is surrounded by a turquoise pool.

I was impressed by the way tourist visits to these natural wonders are set out by the Icelandic authorities. Even though the route is followed by hundreds of people each day, in cars, coaches and minivans, there’s easy and clear access and plenty of facilities for those who want and need them without being over the top. Those with mobility difficulties can safely enjoy these awesome natural sights too.

Then, having watched several great gushes with obligatory shrieks of delight it was time to go on to Gullfoss waterfall.

This is actually two waterfalls with water tumbling along a gully carved out over thousands of years. The upper waterfall has an 11 metre drop and the second has a spectacular drop of 21 metres. There are various vantage points where you can stand and marvel at the sheer power of the water often crowned with rainbows forming in the mist above. Spectacular. By this stage on the Golden Triangle tour you start to run out of superlatives.

The basic tour can take around five hours, but on a self-drive basis expect to be out all day as you stop multiple times along the way at other stunning locations along the way.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Iceland in the summer is the land of the midnight sun. This makes the sightseeing opportunities far greater if you have the energy to keep going during seemingly never-ending daylight.

A very worthwhile detour from the Golden Triangle and not too far off the main route is to the village of Fludir, 25 minutes off the ring road. We were totally fascinated to peak into one of the large greenhouses where tomatoes and peppers are grown using heat from geothermal water. And at the Farmer’s Bistro www.farmersbistro.is next door we were treated to some delicious mushroom soup (from their own mushrooms grown indoors) by charming owners Georg and Emma who gave us the history of the farm which also produces other organic vegetables. It was great to meet them. Icelanders are super laid-back and friendly. The men are the embodiment of their Viking past and, a bonus for us, everyone speaks English. But it wasn’t time to leave Fludir yet. After a tiring day of sightseeing we couldn’t wait to dip in the hot (36-40 degree C) natural spring water at The Secret Lagoon in the village. It was magical, soothing and uplifting.

This is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland – created in 1891 – and recently renovated. It also has its own tiny Litli Geysir that can be watched from the pool. Definitely NOT a swimming area. You can even end the evening with some fish and chips. Not to be missed www.secretlagoon.is

Suitably relaxed it was time to head back to Reykjavik. It was late but I couldn’t resist staying up until midnight when it was still light – a strange experience.

On the second full day it was on the road again along the south coast for about two-and-a-half hours to the Solheimajökull glacier. An unmissable stop along the way is to see Seljalandsfoss waterfall with a 60-metre gush of water. Beautiful.

Solheimajökull is easy to find and you can just park up and take a stony but not difficult walk to overlook the tongue of the glacier. It’s quiet and not too busy with tourists and a sight quite unique. Don’t expect pristine white and blue colours, but an awesome ice and black ash monolith a mile wide in parts. It’s free just to stand and stare but you can book walking and climbing tours on the ice at reasonable prices. You are not allowed to go it alone.

The nearby Eyjafjallajökull volcano is the one that erupted in 2010 causing widespread havoc for airlines. Although there has been word that another eruption could happen in the near future, volcanoes and all seismic activity in Iceland is highly monitored, so it is perfectly safe to travel around the area.

As it was my birthday that day we also made for the ominous sounding Black Beach near the village of Vik where puffins nest in the high rock cliffs and dangerous, powerful waves pound the volcanic sand and rock shoreline. Just off the coast you can see the unusually shaped rock arch of the Dyrholaey Peninsula.

The small restaurant beside the beach was the perfect place for a celebration meal. The surroundings were not lavish, more like a café, but the food was sumptuous, including the freshest and most tender cod I’ve ever tasted and a hearty, traditional lamb soup. Washed down with a glass of wine looking out at the wild and Romantic view, however, it was hard to beat.

It was a long drive home, but we’d been rewarded with unforgettable memories.

On the last day it was time for a whistle-stop walking tour of Reykjavik home to around 200,000 people, two thirds of the country’s population. It’s charming, accessible and pretty.

We headed up the hill to the highly distinctive and beautiful Hallgrimskirkja Church. You can get panoramic views from the top of the church tower. We were also lucky enough to be treated to some uplifting music played on the giant pipe organ – 15 metres high – that dominates the interior.

It was a delight to wander around town, browse the small shops and we discover a really interesting flea market down by the old harbour. But even here don’t expect to find a bargain – prices are still high.

Although there wasn’t time on this visit for us you can book whale watching and puffin tours from here. Reykjavik has many and varied museums and the Vikin Maritime Museum is in this area.

The Reykjavik City Card is a must for discounts on entry to many of the city’s attractions and services including city buses, the National Gallery of Iceland, the Photography, Settlement, Art, and Open Air museums, the ferry to Videy Island (home of Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower), the city zoo, family park and the many city thermal pools as well as discounts on restaurants, tours and other attractions. Discovering the history of this amazing place gives you a high level of respect for the Icelanders past and present.

You might be surprised to learn that hot dogs are popular here and Baejarins beztu hot dog stand near the harbour is famous for its lamb hot dogs and popular. Prices range between £2 - £8.

When in Iceland it is highly likely, like us, that you will become quite comfortable and indeed addicted to the idea of a bit of hot bathing. Don’t be put off by the rule of having to shower naked (female and male changing rooms are separate) before you take a dip with swimwear on! Noone here is embarrassed or self-conscious. In the city there are an amazing 18 thermal pools. One local I quizzed recommended Vesturbaejarlaug and Arbaejarlaug but Laugardalslaug is the biggest.

We discovered a free hot spring experience, however, on a geothermal beach just minutes from our accommodation that was brilliant. Nautholsvik was created in 2001 as a health and fitness centre. Some brave souls were cold-water swimming, but when I gingerly waded out into the cold sea I soon found the water at about 12 degrees C too much to stand for long but definitely stimulating. Even our North Sea seems warm by comparison. A quick dip back in the hot water was more soothing.

This was a fitting and refreshing last experience in Iceland and we’ll be back - this place is addictive.

Fact box

The Reykjavik Loves city card for either 24, 48 or 72 hours can be bought from the tourist centre in the City Hall, Reykjavik. Prices between £24.50 to £42. More information about the city, accommodation and tours from http://www.visitreykjavik.is/

How to get there

WOW air flies from London Gatwick to Reykjavik twice daily and from London Stansted daily.

Prices start from just £29.99 one way including taxes (WOW Basic package).

It is Iceland’s ultra-low-cost transatlantic airline offering cheap fares, a modern fleet with

the lowest emissions and the biggest smile flying to 38 destinations across Europe, North America and Canada with Airbus A320 and Airbus A321/A330 models.

For more information or to book, visit www.wowair.co.uk or call 0118 321 8384.

* Pictures by Ruth and Evan Brindle and Ragnar Th/Visit Reykjavik