Travel: Such glories in transit mode

It is better to travel than to arrive - that's the appeal of a stopover. And you feel you've gained an extra holiday. Harriet O'Brien spends 24 hours taking in the surreal sights of Iceland, while Simon Calder assesses other top transit points around the world
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The Independent Culture
High on the Langjokoll glacier in Iceland, the wind whipped up a gentle, late-summer chill. The scrunch of ice underfoot was the only sound to break the silence of the frozen landscape. You get a feeling of being out of time and out of place in such ethereal surroundings.

Which seems all the more appropriate if you're there for only a few hours, knowing that the next day you will be basking in the sunshine of Florida, strolling around Boston harbour or contending with an early September drizzle in London. It would be difficult to improve on the elemental appeal of Iceland as a transit point.

Logically, though, this tiny country should not be a popular place for travellers at the moment, particularly if you're British. During this rare period of sterling strength you will feel rich practically anywhere in the world (with delusions of tycoonery in Asia, Russia and Canada). Not so in the land of ice-caps and lava fields and just 170,000 people. Life is seriously expensive in Iceland: a handicap that doesn't manage to diminish its draw for increasing numbers of visitors.

That much was apparent as I watched wodges of people boarding a daytripping bus in Reykjavik to see the Iceland classics: the great waterfall of Gulfoss and the Geysir from which all other geysers take their name. Spectacular though these sights undoubtedly are, you might well find yourself barely glimpsing them over an anoraked shoulder. Yet the place offers plenty more - with just 24 hours in the country, I headed for other less crowded but almost equally stunning sights: glacial rivers of deep turquoise; bold volcanic hillscapes; powerfully bubbling hot springs.

Quite beyond the obvious geological appeal of Iceland (and curiosity about a proud island people who still speak a sort of 10th-century Norwegian) is the sheer convenience factor of a stop-off here. Icelandair and the Iceland tourist board have developed a clever range of products: low air fares from Europe to Canada and the States, with a change of planes in Iceland's capital and the option, meanwhile, of spending a day or a few days selecting from a host of organised trips that run like clockwork to tourist attractions within relatively easy distance of Reykjavik.

In fact it's such smooth going that Iceland becomes a costly addiction. On my first trip I became well and truly hooked. Arriving from London at about midnight in the glowing smudge of late-summer daylight, I took a sulphur-smelling trip into town, found a B&B, slept and woke up with just six hours before my onward flight to Canada. What to do in the short time before catching my next plane? "A Blue Lagoon tour, of course," said the obliging people at the B&B. "And the bus will also drop you at the airport." So off I went.

This trip is based around the Reykjanes Peninsula, a large swathe of moss-covered lava-land looking like a bleak moonscape. The coach came complete with a guide and his nine-year-old son, who evidently took as much delight in learning about the landscape as the dozen or so tourists on the bus.

Guideson had sticky-up hair that his father lovingly tried to smooth down every time we left the vehicle to look at the old fishing town of Harfnarfjordur, a colony of arctic terns or the sea pounding the edge of the peninsula at Rekjanesviti. (The child would have been Guidedottir or thereabouts had he been a girl - Icelanders do not have surnames and adhere fiercely to a patronymic system: they concoct their last name by adding "son" or "dottir" to their father's Christian name.

Information was proudly forthcoming. We passed a large harbour with enormous fishing vessels and processing plants - 70 per cent of Iceland's exports are fish, we were told (with a quick resume about the current cod contentions). And fishing employs just 5 per cent of the population. So what does everyone else do?

One answer became clear as we proceeded past power plants dotted along the eerie, blasted landscape of the peninsula. It seems that when the Icelanders want electricity or hot water they simply plug into the geothermal forces here and hey presto - power. They have even devised ways of getting electricity cables to run their power under the ocean to the rest of Europe - but for the moment the project is too expensive.

And then we reached the highlight of the tour: the truly weird Blue Lagoon. This is a steaming lake that emerged when a power plant was placed here. So you put on your swim suit, step into the cloudy, tepid water and loll around, along with crowds of other happy daytrippers, under the belching steam of the power plant's shiny chimneys. You bob about for a while, pondering the curative claims made for this warm, soupy water.

Then you take a long shower to stop yourself smelling like a very old egg, board the bus again and, an hour later, you are on a plane bound for the New World. Blinking with bemusement at your surreal experience, you swear that you will come back again for another quick fix of one of the world's youngest and most intriguing islands.

Harriet O'Brien paid pounds 340 for a return trip (including taxes) on Icelandair from London to Halifax in Canada and back from Boston, USA - with stop- overs in Iceland on both legs of the journey. In Iceland she spent about pounds 40 per night at a basic B&B and roughly pounds 30 for a trip to the Blue Lagoon and about pounds 50 for a nine-hour tour into the glacial interior. For further details contact Reykjavik Excursions on 00 354 564 4777.

For dedicated trips to Iceland during September, Icelandair holidays (0171-388 5599) start at pounds 299 for a two-night inclusive package (minus lunches and dinners but including all taxes) from Heathrow to Reykjavik. For longer holidays also try Arctic Experience (01737 218800) or Regent Holidays (01983 864212).