The Complete Guide to Iceland

Just below the Arctic Circle, in the middle of the Atlantic, lies an island of lava fields, geysers, soaring peaks, waterfalls and huge glaciers. Rhiannon Batten takes a tour of Iceland and finds that if the weather gets too bad there are plenty of other attractions to while away the hours, from hot springs to startling history, ancient folklore and some very fine restaurants...
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SOUNDS A BIT CHILLY

SOUNDS A BIT CHILLY

What do you expect from a collection of islands just below the Arctic Circle, in the middle of the Atlantic? It was a Norwegian settler called Floki Vilgerdarson who came up with the name after a bad winter in 870AD. Windchill does tend to keep temperatures low all year round, but nature has provided its own compensation.

The main island, about 450km wide by 350km long, is surprisingly green. And scattered among the crackly lava fields, gushing geysers, jagged mountains and glaciers are hot pools to dip into when the weather is bad. There is so much to see that you are unlikely to stray from the mainland on a first-time trip. The capital, Reykjavik, and the international airport at Keflavik are in the south-west. To the north and east of here is the "Golden Circle" of seismic activity. Further east is Iceland's biggest glacier, Vatnajokull, with Lake Myvatn and the country's second-biggest town, Akureyri, to the north.

Over in the remote north-west are fishing villages and dramatic fjords and, in the centre, an almost uninterrupted volcanic wilderness. The offshore alternatives are the puffin-filled Westman Islands off the south coast and the Arctic Circle-piercing Grimsey to the north.

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

Summer is the obvious time as the days are longer (with midnight dusk, though not quite midnight sun), and all the attractions, roads, hotels and campsites are open. Having said that, Icelanders are pretty accommodating and most museums will open by appointment at other times of year. Also, prices generally drop in winter and the darkness gives you a chance to see the Northern Lights.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

In the capital. Almost half of Iceland's 280,000 population lives in Reykjavik. Accordingly, many of the major cultural attractions - as well as the best bars, restaurants and hotels - are here. Approached from the airport over lava fields, Reykjavik is a compact and manageable city, set around a neat harbour facing snow-covered mountains. Most of the shops and bars are on the one main street, Austurstraeti.

The city's two most prominent features are Hallgrimskirkja, a vast, iceberg-shaped church named after a 17th-century poet (open 9am-5pm daily), and Oskjuhlid, a collection of spherical water tanks perched on the top of a hill just beyond the city centre. The complex boasts a revolving restaurant, a small geothermal beach and the Saga Museum (00 354 511 1517; www.sagamuseum.is). It's open 10am-6pm in summer and admission is 800 Iceland Kronur (£6). You can get a rundown on Icelandic history at the renovated National Museum at 7-9 Lyngasi (00 354 530 2200; www.natmus.is; admission prices to be decided), which is set to re-open on 1 September. Then there's the National Gallery at 7 Frikirkjuvegur (00 354 515 9620; www.listasafn.is), which is open daily from 11am-5pm (except Monday) and costs ISK400 (£3).

The bill is going to hurt at Reykjavik's bars and restaurants. Eating and drinking in Iceland beats Atkins as a diet plan - £4 for a beer and £20 for a main course is normal. If you're not put off, two of the best restaurants in the capital are the hip, Scandinavian-style Apotek at 16 Austurstraeti (00 354 575 7900) and the cosier, more traditional Laekjarbrekka at 2 Bankastraeti (00 354 551 4430). The latter is particularly good for fish and lamb. For a drink, try the busy, bistro-like Brennslan at 9 Posthusstraeti (00 354 561 3600), or laid-back Kaffibarinn at 1 Bergstadastraeti (00 354 551 1588), which is part-owned by Damon Albarn of Blur.

AND ICELAND'S OTHER METROPOLITAN HOT SPOTS?

Akureyri is the only real Icelandic metropolis outside Reykjavik. The local museum has some fairly interesting displays on local history, including the skeleton of a woman and her horse dating from around the year 1000. In the same area is Glaumbaer (00 354 453 6173; www.krokur.is/glaumb), a group of 18th-century turfed farm buildings. These were occupied until the 1940s but now serve as a folk museum. It opens from 9am-6pm daily from 1 June-20 September and by appointment the rest of the year. Entrance is ISK400 (£3) per person.

THAT'S ENOUGH FOLKLORE

OK, how about fishing? Over in the West Fjords, in Isafjordur, 18th-century warehouses have been turned into an exhibition space for a maritime museum (00 354 456 3291). It's open from 10am-5pm daily in summer and admission is ISK400 (£3).

One of the country's quirkiest museums is located nearby at Bolungarvik. It features the life and work of former fisherman Geir Gudmundsson, and is housed in an old fishing station. Standing among the narrow wooden beds inside the tiny turf-roofed buildings, with the wind whipping the icy Atlantic waves on to the shore below, it's easy to imagine the hardships fishermen faced as late as the 1930s. Geir has recently retired but the museum is open 10am-5pm daily in summer. For more information, contact the local tourist office (00 354 456 5121).

Other fishy attractions are the Icelandic Saltfish Museum (00 354 420 1190; www.saltfisksetur.is) in Grindavik and the Herring Museum (00 354 467 1604; www.siglo.is/herring) in Siglufjordur. Both are open from 10am-6pm daily in summer; admission is ISK500 (£3.80).

I WANT MAJESTIC GEOGRAPHY

Superb scenery starts the moment you head inland from Keflavik airport, with the road snaking a smooth trail through jagged lava fields. But the most obvious answer is the Golden Circle. Here you'll find Geysir, the enormous geyser which gave its name to all others; the powerful waterfall, Gullfoss; and Thingvellir, the site of both Iceland's first parliament and of shifting continental plates.

Several companies offer guided day-trips here from around ISK6,500 (£50) per person. Options include Reykjavik Excursions (00 354 580 5400; www.re.is), Destination Iceland (00 354 591 1020; www.dice.is) and Iceland Excursions (00 354 540 1313; www.icelandexcursions.is).

WHAT ABOUT SOME ICE?

Head for a glacier. Vatnajokull, in the east of the country, is a huge icecap, stretching across 150km and covering 3,000sq km. It is the largest glacier in Europe and third biggest in the world. You can get a sense of its size from below, but the best way to experience it is from the top. Companies offering tours include Mountain Guide (00 354 587 9999; www.mountainguide.is), which runs glacier walks from ISK3,300 (£25) for two and a half hours; Glacier Jeeps (00 354 478 1000; www.glacierjeeps.is), which does skidoo trips across the ice from ISK7,200 (£55) per person; and Dog Steam Tours (00 354 487 7747; www.dogsledding.is) which organises supra-glacial dog-sledding, also from ISK7,200 (£55).

I'LL STICK TO TWO FEET

Despite the hordes of midges in summer, the biggest attraction outside Reykjavik is Myvatn, a vast lake surrounded by smaller lakes, lava fields, old cinder cones and some of the country's best birdlife. You can walk the 30km around it or venture off into the surrounding countryside. The spectacular Dettifoss waterfall is also near here. Another good area for hiking is the Snaefellsnes peninsula, out in the far west. This also has a glacier and was the setting for Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, although the surrounding lava fields and soaring mountains make it feel more like the edge. If you want company, there are two hiking clubs in Iceland: Ferdafelag (00 354 568 2533; www.fi.is) and Utivist (00 354 562 1000; www.utivist.is).

GET ME IN HOT WATER

Almost every village in Iceland has a heated swimming pool, but the most celebrated bathing opportunities can be found at the Blue Lagoon (00 354 420 8800; www.bluelagoon.is), a grotto-like jumble of jagged lava and hot, milky water that's rather unromantically supplied from the outflow of the adjacent thermal power station. It's relatively expensive at ISK1,200 (£9.20) a pop, but its location, right by Keflavik airport, makes it accessible even if you're only on a two-hour stopover in Iceland en route to the US. In summer the lagoon opens from 9am-9pm daily.

THERE BE MONSTERS

Well, not exactly, but Iceland is one of the best places in Europe to go whale and dolphin watching. When hunting whales was temporarily stopped in 1989, watching them became a local industry, with the chance to see blue, fin, humpback, minke, sei and killer whales drawing in the crowds. Now that commercial whaling has been resumed, there are fears that whale watching will be disrupted.

For the time being, Husavik, on the north-east coast, is the country's main centre for the activity, with two main whale-watching companies, Hvalaferdir (00 354 464 2551; www.hvalaferdir.is) and North Sailing (00 354 464 2350; www.nordursigling.is). Prices start at around ISK3,800 (£29) for three hours. Husavik is also home to the informative Husavik Whale Centre (00 354 464 2520; www.icewhale.is), which opens from 9am-9pm daily in summer (June-September) and entrance costs ISK500 (£3.80).

WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO SEE?

The Westman Islands made headlines in the 1960s and 1970s when a series of volcanic eruptions produced a new island, Surtsey, off the south coast of Iceland. These days, puffins are the main attraction. Iceland is home to 10m of them by late summer, and most are in the Westman Islands. There are regular ferries from Porlakshofn on the mainland to Heimay, the main island. The journey takes about three hours and costs from ISK1,700 (£13) per person (00 354 481 2800; www.herjolfur.is). You can also get there by plane from Bakki to Heimay with Flugfelag Vestmannaeyja (00 354 481 3255; www.eyjaflug.is) A round trip costs ISK4,000 (£30.50).

WHERE CAN I STAY?

To keep costs sensible, consider a youth hostel. There are about 25 hostels around the country, with dorm beds at ISK1,950 (£15) for non-members; call 00 354 553 8110 or go to www.hostel.is for details. Iceland has two main hotel chains: Fosshotel (00 354 562 4000; www.fosshotel.is) and Edda (00 354 444 4000; www.hoteledda.is). At hotels you can expect to pay around £100 per double in summer, with breakfast.

For glamour, there are three obvious contenders. In Reykjavik, the Hotel Borg (00 354 551 1440; www.hotelborg.is) at 11 Posthusstraeti and Hotel 101 (00 354 580 0101; www.101hotel.is) at 10 Hverfisgata are owned by the same person but are decorated very differently. Hotel Borg makes the most of its Art Deco heritage with antiques and parquet flooring. Doubles cost from ISK19,900 (£153). Hotel 101 is the ultimate in cosy minimalism. Doubles cost from ISK22,900 (£176), without breakfast.

Outside the city, Hotel Budir (00 354 435 6700; www.budir.is), is arguably the world's most romantic hotel. In the wilds of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, it combines 19th-century opulence with Scandinavian chic. Doubles with breakfast start at ISK12,700 (£98)

HOW CAN I GET THERE?

Icelandair (0870 787 4044; www.icelandair.co.uk) is the main carrier, with return fares from Heathrow or Glasgow to Keflavik starting around £430, although cheaper internet deals are sometimes available. For example, this week the website www.opodo.co.uk has been selling Heathrow-Keflavik flights in June for £155 return, or £175 from Glasgow. The competition is Iceland Express (0870 8500 737; www.icelandexpress.com), which has return fares from Stansted to Keflavik starting at £112. From Keflavik airport, the Flybus takes about 40 minutes direct to Reykjavik hotels and costs ISK1,100 (£8.50) each way (00 354 562 1011; www.re.is).

Many people visit Iceland as a stopover on a flight with Icelandair to America. A London-Keflavik-Boston return can sometimes costs less than a trip only as far as Iceland and back.

You can sail from Aberdeen to Lerwick on Tuesdays from £38.50 return per person (0845 6000 449; www.northlinkferries.co.uk) and pick up the Wednesday ferry from the Shetland capital to Seydisfjordur in Iceland aboard Smyril Line (01595 690845; www.smyril-line.fo). Prices for this leg start at £208 return per person; the journey takes 31 hours.

ANY ORGANISED TOURS?

Tour operators that cover Iceland include Arctic Experience (01737 218801; www.arcticexperience.co.uk), Scantours (020 7839 2927; www.scantours.co.uk), Taber Holidays (01274 594656; www.taberhols.co.uk) and Regent Holidays (01983 864212; www.regent-holidays.co.uk). A typical seven-night, fly-drive trip with Arctic Experience starts at about £680, including return flights, car hire, bed and breakfast accommodation and a suggested itinerary.

CAN I DRIVE ALL THE WAY AROUND?

Yes: a main highway circles the island. But there are still many unpaved roads that are unsuitable for standard cars, even in summer. At other times of year many roads are closed. If you don't book a fly-drive, car hire costs between ISK6,000 (£46) and an extortionate ISK18,000 (£150) per day.

If you've got plenty of cash but don't want to sit in the front, Incredible Jeep Tours' trips range from ISK9,500 (£73) for a Northern Light-spotting outing to ISK18,000 (£150) for an eight-hour trip taking in waterfalls, mountains, craters, hot pools and Hekla volcano (00 354 544 5252; www.mountaintaxi.is).

HOW ELSE COULD I TRAVEL?

For bus schedules on the main routes, contact the long-distance bus organisation BSI (00 354 591 1000; www.bsi.is). There are several unlimited-travel bus passes available in summer, including the Omnibus Passport, which costs from €301 (£200) for one-week's use of almost all scheduled coach routes.

Air Iceland (00 354 570 3030; www.airiceland.is) is the domestic branch of Icelandair. besides a snetwork of domestic flights, it organises day trips from Reykjavik to such far-flung destinations as Greenland for ISK44,515 (£342).

Another worthwhile trip is the island of Grimsey, the only part of Iceland that's technically within the Arctic Circle and which again boasts good birdlife. You can get there from Akureyri by bus and ferry or by plane. For more information contact the local tourist board (00 354 462 7733; www.eyjafjordur.is).

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

A tourist desk at Keflavik airport (00 354 425 0330) is open for most incoming flights. Iceland's main tourist information centre is at 2 Adalstraeti in Reykjavik (00 354 562 3045; www.icetourist.is). In summer it opens 8.30am-7pm daily. Pick up a copy of the free Around Iceland brochure while you're there.

Traveller's Guide: What A Saga

After an unsuccessful attempt at colonisation by Irish priests, Iceland was eventually settled by Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. Many Icelanders can trace their ancestry all the way back to these early settlers because, in the 13th century, people started writing up the stories they had heard of the settlers, in the Sagas. Because the Sagas are based on real-life events, you can visit many of the sites mentioned in the books. In the village of Pingeyri, for example, a trail around Gisla's Saga is planned to point out where particular scenes took place.

If you want your Viking history served with a slice of cheese, the Viking Village in Hafnarfjordur offers a themed restaurant and hotel where the staff wear horned helmets and sackcloth shirts (00 354 565 1213; www.vikingvillage.is).

More authentic is Eriksstadir, on the west coast. Here, the ruins of what's thought to have been Erik the Red's farm have been reconstructed. The farm (00 354 434 1118; www.leif.is) is open 9am-6pm in summer, admission ISK500 (£4).

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