Iceland's mix of geothermal heat and ice will leave you aglow, says Nanna Arnadottir

Icelandic winter arrives in early October, but initially average temperatures stay around freezing point thanks to the moderating effects of the Gulf Stream.

Driving towards Reykjavik on the airport bus, the cloak of snow is deceptive: the ground literally bubbles with heat, and Icelanders have by now started turning up the temperature in the pipes that line the streets, to keep them clear of ice.

Indeed, heating up in Reykjavik is hard to avoid. The steamed-up windows of the hip Graai Kotturinn or Grey Cat (where brooding artists go to look reflective) beckon you in for a freezing pint of Coca-Cola, of which the Icelanders drink more per capita than any other country.

Afterwards you can tuck into hearty Icelandic fare at Laekjarbrekka restaurant set in one of the oldest houses left in Reykjavik. It is decorated in old-fashioned Icelandic style, with lace curtains and chandeliers. The smell of freshly cooked fish is homely and reassuring; but experimenting with traditional Icelandic dishes like lamb's head and putrefied shark meat should be eased into and are best approached with a liberal mindset.

Warmed through by the native cuisine you should head for the pool. Thankfully, there are plenty to go around. Icelanders love roasting away in heated outdoor lidos; the island has 126 public baths for its 293,000 people, compared with London's mere 102 for seven million inhabitants. But these are social places, rather than serious keep-fit establishments. "If you see someone actually swimming they are not native," says one local.

In Iceland the daylight hours are few and precious in winter - an average of about seven hours a day - so getting a headstart on the sightseeing is best.

Snowmobiling on Langjokull glacier at dawn is like being on an alien planet. The snow looks unblemished and pearly, and with no easy way to get your bearings, realism begins thawing away. Speeding across the roughest terrain, in possibly the biggest 4x4 you will ever see, the alabaster scenery melts into abstract and you draw nearer the ice caverns. These were created by geo-thermal runoff, a process where in the summer some of the glacier melts, draining out into rivers deep underground. Once winter returns, the cold solidifies the walls and a tunnel is left behind. Back on the glacier, sitting on the back of a snowmobile whizzing on top of pure compact frozen water feels surreal.

You need not go to such extremes to have a wild and wintry day out; you could instead join one of the daily coach trips around the Golden Circle, a series of spectacular natural features within a manageable distance of the capital.

Most trips start with the Gullfoss, Golden Falls, first. It is a grand and booming waterfall that thunders darkly over black lava rock.

Iceland has been modest in its gifts to the rest of the world, but one is the word "geyser". The hole in the earth's surface that is so named is about 10km down a country road, and across what would be a snowfield had it not been melted bare by the prevailing heat. Strokkur Geysir regularly blasts boiling water out of the ground. Shocked tourists try to clamp down on their camera buttons in time but the spectacle catches them off guard.

The circle is completed at Thingvellir National Park where, uncannily, politics meets geology at its most elemental. The world's first parliament was created in a chasm pulled apart by the earth's tectonic plates.

Reykjavik may have about the same population as Crawley, but it has much more to offer culturally. As winter descends, Iceland heats up towards the end of October for its annual music festival. In recent years, the Iceland Airwaves event has featured the bands Keane and The Bravery. The first festival was held in 1999 in an aircraft hangar but has since moved to clubs and concert venues around the capital.

If you prefer to be a participant rather than a spectator, you could always go horseriding in Hafnafjordur. The horses are allowed out even in the depths of winter; they need exercise just as much as you do. A typical excursion is a two-hour ride weaving through beautiful, hilly countryside.

Fresh horse is not a fragrance welcomed by passengers in a confined aeroplane, so before your flight home you can be cleansed at the Blue Lagoon. Despite its tropical-sounding name the Blue Lagoon comprises steamy turquoise waters against black rock - and is a modern creation. It was formed after a natural seawater source some 2km underground was stumbled upon during drilling for a geothermal plant. People bathing here saw a noticeable improvement in the condition of their skin - and tourists can expect a similar enhancement of their mood.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can reach Keflavik airport near Reykjavik on Icelandair (0870 787 4020; www.icelandair.co.uk) from Heathrow and Glasgow, and on Iceland Express (0870 240 5600; www.icelandexpress.com) from Stansted. From the end of March, British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) will fly from Gatwick.

VISITING THERE

The Iceland experience

Graai Kotturinn: located at Hverfisgata 16a (00 354 551 1544) in Reykjavik.

Laekjarbrekka restaurant: 00 354 551 4430; www.laekjarbrekka.is

Iceland Expeditions (00 354 861 7080) organises glacier-snowmobiling trips that include the Golden Circle; the price is 15,900 Icelandic Kronur (£145) per person; children 11 and under go for half price.

Iceland Excursions (00 354 540 1313; www.allrahanda.is) organises daily Golden Circle coach tours for a price of 4,800Kr (£43), with half price for teenagers, and free for children 11 and under. The company will pick you up at your hotel or hostel at no extra charge.

Iceland Airwaves Music Festival: 00 354 552 0380; www.icelandairwaves.com.

Horse riding: The standard two-hour tour from the Ishestar Riding Company (00 354 555 7000; www.ishestar.is) is 4,600Kr (£42); family tours, day tours and longer highland tours are also available.

The Blue Lagoon (00 354 420 8800; www.bluelagoon.com) opens 10am-8pm in winter. Admission is 1,300Kr (£11) for adults, 600Kr (£5) for those aged 12-15, and free for children aged 11 and under.

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