Let Reykjavik invigorate you

Braving the Icelandic capital in darkest December, Peter Moss finds a cool and cultured city

Magnus Magnusson, Björk and that bloke who always wins the World's Strongest Man contest: the sum total of my knowledge of Iceland - before going there, that is. Now I have been, I can report that the scenery is breathtaking, the people delightful and Reykjavik an endearing small-town capital city that thoroughly deserves to be one of the European cities of culture in 2000.

Magnus Magnusson, Björk and that bloke who always wins the World's Strongest Man contest: the sum total of my knowledge of Iceland - before going there, that is. Now I have been, I can report that the scenery is breathtaking, the people delightful and Reykjavik an endearing small-town capital city that thoroughly deserves to be one of the European cities of culture in 2000.

Descending into Iceland is like the opening scene in Fargo - swirling snowy tundra that seems to lead nowhere, a car's headlights on the horizon the only hint of civilisation. And in Reykjavik you have the ultimate frontier town, where huge 4WD vehicles rumble into the city for their weekly provisions. If Iceland is the Wild West, Reykjavik is Dodge City, an exuberant oasis on the very edge of a largely uninhabitable country.

When to go

The weather is best in summer, when the temperature reaches the upper 50s, sometimes nudging 60F. It is the land of the midnight sun, and summer also brings unfeasibly long days. In June and July you can lose all track of time, as it never really gets dark. Winter, on the other hand, is cold and dark, with barely five hours of daylight in December and January. This is definitely not the tourist season, which makes it a good time to go. It's called Iceland, after all, so why not see it when it's icy and the landscape is at its most beguiling?

Needless to say, in 2000 there will be many special events to mark Reykjavik being a European city of culture.

Getting there

Iceland's only international airport is at Keflavik, 40 minutes from Reykjavik. Icelandair (tel: 0171-874 1000) is the only airline with direct flights to Iceland. It flies from Heathrow to Keflavik for £275 return plus £32 tax, rising to £295 plus £32 tax in summer and over the Christmas period. Tickets must be booked at least 21 days ahead and your stay must include a Saturday night.

Where to stay

The Radisson Saga Hotel, Hagatorg 1 (tel: 00 354 552 9900) is probably the best, with all the trappings - swimming-pool, health club, penthouse restaurant - of an international hotel. Doubles from £135. Otherwise, consider the Hotel Holt, Bergstadastraeti 37 (tel: 00 354 552 5700). As a hostelry it is pleasant if unexciting but it does have its own eclectic art collection and a prime location. Doubles from £125.

Hotel Borg is in the centre of town at Posthusstraeti 11 (tel: 00 354 551 1440). Nicely restored to 1930s style, it is run by the owner of the town's Hard Rock Café (expect your breakfast in a sesame bun with fries and a shake). Doubles from £120.

Guest-houses are a good option for the economy traveller. Most are clean and friendly. Typical is Gistiheimilio Svala at Skolavordustigur 30 (tel: 00 354 562 3544), a traditional town house offering singles from £35, doubles from £50. And for just £12 you can sleep in the attic - bring your own sleeping bag.

What to see and do

By necessity this must include "out of town", as Reykjavik is rather small and best used as a base for exploring the country, which can be done in three or four days. First port of call for many is the Blue Lagoon, 30 minutes from the city. From miles around you can see the steam rise from the outdoor geothermal pool. With the December air at -10C, I felt snug as a bug in a flue, the lagoon's blue waters a haven of warmth from the snow and ice all around. The water is invigorating and rejuvenating.

Geysir and Strokkur, the natural phenomena of spouting water, are other must-sees on the tourist trail. They form part of the Golden Circle day trip, which also includes the rainbow-enhanced cascade at Gullfoss; the Kerid crater with its brooding green lake; and the greenhouses of Hveragerdi, Iceland's "flower town".

Other tours include the South Shore Adventure - fascinating landscapes, puffin colonies and surf-pounded seashore - and a mini-cruise from Reykjavik's harbour around the nearby fjords.

Back in Reykjavik, tarry a while in Hallgrimskirkja, a silvery concrete church that is the Grace Kelly of churches - statuesque, ice-cool and soulless, though gorgeous to behold. Reykjavik excels in museums and galleries, mostly charting local history and culture. The Nordic House (tel: 551 7030) in Hringbraut is a favourite, as is the Museum of Photography (tel: 563 2530) at Borgartun 1. Both chronicle Nordic history; both are beautifully presented.

Where to eat

You can scarcely move for cafés in Reykjavik, each one cosier than the next, most serving top nosh from coffee and cake to full meals. For cappuccino and a chat with arty locals, try the bohemian Café Solon Islandus at Bankastraeti 7 (tel: 551 2666). It is open until 3am and has a cabaret room with good live music.

Unsurprisingly, seafood restaurants abound here. The pick of the bunch is Vio Tjornina at Templarasund 3 (tel: 551 8666), with daily specials such as a mezze of haddock, herring and mackerel, smoked to perfection. Main courses from £7 are good value.

There is an odd affinity between Iceland and Ireland, and The Dubliner (tel: 511 3233) is a wacky fusion of the two cultures: Irish stew, bloomor (sheep's-blood pudding!) and vodka-spiced Guinness. Try walking after that little lot.

The Perlan (tel: 562 0200) is one of the sights of Reykjavik, a big pearly dome atop the city's immense hot-water tanks. Expect to pay upwards of £25 a head at this revolving hilltop restaurant with a view and a half.

Beyond that, just café-hop round the main drag at Bankastraeti. At Kaffi Barrinn you may run into the owner, one Damon Albarn.

Nightlife

Icelanders have the highest literacy rate in the world, yet still they listen to Olivia Newton-John and the Bee Gees. Yes, Reykjavik is the disco capital of northern Europe. Most clubs are expensive - you will need £10 just to get in. The legendary nightspots, they tell me, include Casablanca at Skulagata 30 and The Spotlight at Hverfisgata 10.

Deals and packages

Peter Moss travelled with Travelscene (tel: 0181-427 8800), flying with Icelandair from Heathrow to Reykjavik and staying at the Radisson Saga Hotel. Travelscene offers two-night weekend breaks at the Saga in April 2000 from £319, based on two sharing. This includes breakfast, return flights, taxes and transfers.

Further information

Reykjavik tourist information centre is at Bankastratei 2 (tel: 00 354 562 3045). In the UK, call the Iceland Tourist Board (tel: 0181-286 8008).

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