Best For Northern Exposure: Iceland
Saturday 08 January 2005
Ahead of us the road snaked up the hillside. Against the stracciatella landscape of brown and cream, it had a distinctly aqua hue.
Ahead of us the road snaked up the hillside. Against the stracciatella landscape of brown and cream, it had a distinctly aqua hue. Is that ice? Ruth stopped the car. We looked at one another. "Shall we go for it?" the look seemed to say. We both grinned. What the hell, you only die once. For a second the car seemed to rear up, as she bore down on the accelerator. Yeeeeeehaaah! We cried. Or rather, we didn't. Actually we took one look, and turned round.
Earlier my Thelma & Louise fantasy had been in full flight. We'd arrived at Reykjahlid (population 450) in the north-east of Iceland exhilarated. The 100km drive from the airport at Akureyri had taken us over mountains sifted with snow, past iridescent frozen lakes and grass the colour of rolling tobacco. Strange and beautiful, the late sunrise (it's dark until 10am) plays tricks: in the rear-view mirror I'd seen a mound of lava turn into a man.
At the 41-room Hotel Reynihlio, beside Lake Myvatn, we were the only guests (December is off-season but in spring the place twitches with bird-watchers, and from February there's sufficient snow for cross-country skiing). "You'll have to hurry, there are only a couple of hours of daylight left," said our host Petur, marking our itinerary on the map. "You must see the Krafla volcano, here. But you might not be able to get up if it's too icy."
"Oh right, will the road be blocked off then?" I asked brightly.
"No, but you can tell if it's all glisting."
"Great, thanks," we said, heading for the car. Did he say glistening? Something told me Petur had overestimated our skills in the ice-reading department. But hey, we're tough. We can ride bumpy propellor planes ("Nothing to worry about," said the pilot), and eat rotted shark without gagging in Reykjavik's market ("I'm proud of you," said our city guide, Gunnar). We can walk on black ice in unsuitable boots, and drive across snowy mountains ... Well almost.
A few kilometres later, coming down a hill, our Hyundai Santa Fe began to slide from side to side. We weren't going fast, so I just had time to register Ruth's look of surprise at the wheel, before realising we were about to skid over the edge of the steep drop and die - albeit in embarrassingly slow motion.
We didn't, but after our crash course in ice we knew the "glisting" route to the volcano was a no-go. Oh well, you don't need a death wish to have fun in Iceland. Next stop, the bubbling mud. "If I only see one thing in Iceland it has to be the bubbling mud," said Ruth, several times, before we saw it. In the car park the wind was so strong I couldn't open the door. Clambering out of the driver's side, bent double and stumbling through clouds of gas, we made our way to the solfataras viewing platform. No one tells you how bad Iceland smells. Here, where the sulphur is near the earth's crusty surface, it's hardly surprising, but when it comes out of the tap in your hotel room it's a shock. In my country, I thought, staring at a lone bubble in the watery grey pit below, they'd concrete this over and put a barbed wire fence around it.
On to the Myvatn Nature Baths - a natural thermal pool on the side of a hill. "The lake is not very warm," said the attendant, "but you can go in." "Thank you," we yelled, but the bitter wind stole our voices. Rounding the corner we saw the waves whipping across the water. The etiquette, Gunnar had told us in Reykjavik, is to first get your skin so hot under the shower that you're too numb to feel the cold. So off we went to the changing rooms. Or rather, we didn't. Instead we got back in the car, turned the heated seats up full (you can't beat that just-wet-yourself feeling when your legs are frozen) and drove the long way round the lake as the sun set. Then, having milked the staggering skies for all the photos they were worth, we pulled into the supermarket to sample a traditional Icelandic pic'n'mix.
That night in the hotel café, pink-cheeked and shiny-eyed, we drank Viking beer and schnapps, with big bowls of lamb soup and sweet, dark bread, baked in the underground steam-ovens nearby. As we walked back to our room, the Northern Lights, which had filled the sky every night for a week, shone with more astounding beauty than usual. Or rather, they didn't. They'd gone with the wind on the day we arrived. And frankly, after the icy thrills of our road-trip, I didn't give a damn.
Discover the World's three-night trips to Iceland's scenic north east (February to April) start from £588 per person (including flights from the UK, domestic flights, transfers, three nights at Hotel Reynihlid (breakfast included), and tour of Lake Myvatn. Add-ons start from £29 per person in Reykjavik and £33 in Akureyri (based on two sharing). Optional car hire from £28 per day. For more information tel 01737 214214 or visit www.discover-the-world.co.uk
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