Stuck on a glacier? There's only one way to go

Iceland - land of geysers, whales, stunning scenery and crazy horses. Aoife O'Riordain climbed aboard a Ski-doo and made tracks across the snow...

We all agreed: the fluorescent-red, head-to-toe exposure suits lacked glamour. But, standing on the banks above the milky-white, glacial meltwater of the Hvita river, which flows towards Iceland's southern coast, I realised that glamour wasn't the point. Action was. Reykjavik, the capital, has a reputation as a party city, but the fun we were looking for on our three-day trip was to be found in the natural action playground of geysers, volcanoes, rivers, mountains and glaciers – all of them just three hours from London.

We all agreed: the fluorescent-red, head-to-toe exposure suits lacked glamour. But, standing on the banks above the milky-white, glacial meltwater of the Hvita river, which flows towards Iceland's southern coast, I realised that glamour wasn't the point. Action was. Reykjavik, the capital, has a reputation as a party city, but the fun we were looking for on our three-day trip was to be found in the natural action playground of geysers, volcanoes, rivers, mountains and glaciers – all of them just three hours from London.

Our group of seven ranged from lemmings eager to throw themselves into whatever adventure came their way, to people like me, who wanted a weekend away a little more challenging than strolling around genteel European capitals. The three days promised a lot: white-water rafting, whale-watching and riding snowmobiles over glaciers.

On the banks of the Hvita, our white-water-rafting guide, a tanned ski dude from Seattle, briefed us about teamwork and safety. "Why don't the girls sit at the front and set the pace?" he suggested as we approached the first rapids. The "girls" dutifully clambered into the bows. Only as the first wave of freezing water broke over us did we realised that our suits were meant to keep us safe, not dry. How the "boys" laughed. But the thrill of careering down the rapids, and the spectacle of the canyons, cut by centuries of meltwater, made up for the icy torrent pouring down my back. And little could distract us from the sight of Gullfoss (Golden Falls), a spectacular two-tiered waterfall plunging down the deep basalt gorge.

After drying ourselves, we set off in an oversize 4x4 across the Golden Circle, passing the plumes of geysir (bubbling sulphur pools). The Gusher, once a spectacular sight, has been inactive for several years, but Stokkur, a neighbouring pool, erupts every 5 minutes, firing a torrent of water high into the sky. Our driver, Gummi, hurried us back into our vehicle and we hurtled down a dirt track, one of the country's few interior roads, through a landscape of autumnal heathland punctuated by ancient volcanic craters. Our destination was the Langjökull Glacier, a hulking mass of white behind the black volcanic mountains in the distance. There, we changed clothes again, this time into Michelin-man snowsuits, moon boots and helmets in preparation for our next mission: a snowmobile ride across the glacier.

Ski-doos are a national pastime in Iceland and many Icelanders spend their weekends scooting across the country's three glaciers. It's a terrifying hobby. Each of us was assigned a snowmobile and instructed to keep in single file. After we wound our way over small cracks and crevasses in the ice, our guide called us to a halt to show where part of the glacier had melted and shifted, forming a seemingly bottomless hole.

Back on our Ski-doos, we were required to slide, biker style, to the side to navigate a larger-than-average crack. Terrified, I forgot to keep my hand on the accelerator and came to a grinding halt.

At the bottom of the glacier, where it tumbles into a lake, the terrain is less intimidating. My final adventure of the day was dragging myself on my stomach through a blue cave created by meltwater, with barely enough space to turn around.

The next morning, bleary-eyed, we set off early for Husavik, a pretty fishing village an hour's flight (and a 45-minute drive) from Reykjavik on the longest fjord in the country, in search of whales. Husavik is surrounded by mountains on what feels like the edge of the world. We slid out of the harbour aboard the largest of three traditional, oak fishing boats. Minutes later, we caught a glimpse of our first minke whale coming up for air. Next, a pod of white-beaked dolphins joined the minke and rode our bow wave as we darted from one side of the boat to the other to catch a closer look.

On our final day we tried to get to grips with the Icelandic horse. One of the purest breeds in the world, it was brought to Iceland on the longboats of the Vikings. The horses stand no more than 14.2 hands (4ft 9in) high and resemble furry ponies, but they are deceptively strong and fast. And, though they are not far off the ground, they are surprisingly tricky to ride. As we set off across the lava fields they demonstrated their special gait. Known as tölt – a single-foot, running walk – it's like a fast, uncomfortable trot. Only the guide's advice – "Hold the reins halfway up the horse's neck" – helps.

Before the final dash to the airport, we had just enough time to submerge our aching bodies in the healing waters of the Blue Lagoon, an outdoor series of steaming turquoise pools. Lying in the warm water, my face smeared with white volcanic clay, I remembered being told that once a horse leaves Iceland, it can never return. I much prefer Iceland's horses to its Ski-doos – but I'm sure I'll be back.

The facts
Abercrombie & Kent offer long- weekend active itineraries in Iceland from £1,795 including international flights, whale-watching, 4x4 Jeep safari, snowmobile ride on a glacier, geothermal landscapes. Optional horse-riding and rafting. For reservations call 0845 070 0612; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk. Other A&K long-weekend adventure destinations include Lapland, Chamonix, Morocco and Jordan.
The best time to visit Iceland is from May to October. The summers are short, from June to August, and the nights are bright from May until early August. Winter lasts from November to March, with snow cover in northern areas from October to May. Daylight in mid-winter is limited to a few hours. The aurora borealis appears between September and January.

What to take
Pack plenty of warm clothes that you will be able to layer, as well as a waterproof jacket and trousers and a sturdy pair of hiking boots.
Life jackets, snowsuits, boots and helmets are all provided for white-water rafting, the ski-scooter expedition and horse-riding.

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