Travel: Sharon and Tracey do Iceland

Tracey MacLeod knew that Reykjavik was Europe's coolest destination. But that was about it...
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The Independent Travel
VALENTINE'S DAY was looming and Sharon and I found that, unaccountably, we were both at a loose end, so we decided at the last minute to take ourselves away on a glamorous city break. But all the obvious destinations, such as Paris and Florence, were full up and, after a frantic morning on the phone, it seemed that the only hotel rooms still available anywhere in Europe were in Reykjavik.

All we knew about Iceland's capital was that it's Europe's coolest destination, with Jarvis Cocker popping over for Christmas and Damon from Blur practically owning the place. Fancying ourselves as stylish pioneers, we booked a three-night stay in a four-star hotel for a bargain pounds 239, including flights on Icelandair leaving the next day.

Our first serious misgivings kicked in on the way to the airport when we discovered that it was known as the Land of the Midnight Sun. The horrible thought then struck us that, in February Iceland might also be the Land of the Midday Moon, a suspicion confirmed by our guidebook, which read "winters here are dark and dreary, with only a few hours of twilight to break the long polar night". This was a real bombshell for Sharon because she had packed seven pairs of trousers and two dresses for our three-day trip, and no one would be able to see any of them in the gloom. We only perked up when a stewardess reassured us that we could expect at least eight hours of daylight in February - plenty of time for Sharon to work through most of her wardrobe permutations.

We made the 25-mile journey from Keflavik airport to our hotel by Flybus across barren tundra, and arrived to find we were staying in a kind of suburban wasteland on the edge of a town that resembled Stevenage. The name of the hotel, the Saga, was also a little unpromising. The friendly staff assured us, however, that swinging downtown Reykjavik was a mere 10-minute walk from the hotel, and so it proved the next day, which dawned crisp and sunny.

Reykjavik has the cosy feel of a small fishing port, and even the guide book refers to it as an "overgrown village". Apart from a few historic buildings in the centre, most of the houses are modern, many of them made of painted wood and corrugated iron. But the presence on every street corner of gaggles of stupendously good-looking women, all wearing the latest in boot-cut trousers and platform shoes, gave things a slightly surreal edge, as though the town had been taken over for the day by a convention of undercover supermodels.

As we cruised the main shopping street, Laugavegur, it began to dawn on us that our bargain mini-break wasn't going to be such a bargain after all. Prices in the boutiques were prohibitive, reflecting the fact that everything on the island has to be imported, apart from fish. Even fish was expensive, judging from the menus displayed outside restaurants. We did manage to find a relatively cheap place for lunch, the Kaffi Svarta, a dark and cosy first-floor cafe/bar whose speciality, described as "soup in bread" we assumed to be a mistranslation until we were brought two football-sized cottage loaves, hollowed out and filled with tasty, tomato soup. With a beer and a couple of cappuccinos, we escaped for about pounds 24.

Wary that we might be ensnared into a ruinous spending spree, we left the Svarta and headed for the Westurbaejar outdoor swimming pool, one of the many dotted around the city, filled with water from natural hot springs. In the women's changing room, a stern Nurse Ratchet figure, in rubber shoes, drew our attention to the diagram by the showers, which instructed us about just which areas of our anatomies we were expected to wash before we'd be allowed to swim. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, the pool was packed with swimmers of all ages, cheerfully bobbing around in the steaming waters, then sprinting across the icy concrete to sit in hot-tubs. There seemed to be a relaxed, family atmosphere in the tubs, with men and women sitting comfortably together, so after a little swim we thought we'd join them.

We'd just lowered ourselves into a hot tub when we were joined by a middle- aged man with a resemblance to Leonard Nimoy, who began to rub himself up against Sharon, groaning with pleasure, while pretending to luxuriate in the water jet. She endured this Vulcan assault for as long as seemed polite before we both sprinted out. But we were still prepared to give the Icelandic male the benefit of the doubt as we got ready for Reykjavik's infamous Friday-night cruise.

Sharon had decided that the epicentre of trendy Reykjavik must be the bar co-owned by Damon Albarn, so, as we only had sketchy knowledge, we decided to go to the tourist office to get the exact address. The office was full of people studying leaflets about Iceland's natural glories, which are geysers, glaciers and fjords, and somehow neither of us could come straight out with "what's the name of the bar Damon Albarn owns?" Sharon tried every possible pronunciation of the name she had scribbled down, until the assistant finally snatched the scrap of paper and read out Sharon's notes in a loud voice: "Damon's bar ... full of trendy people ... v. trendy." "Aha," she shrieked, "you want to go to the Kaffi Barinn where all the little English girls sit in the chairs and go: 'Ooh, maybe this is the chair where Damon sits ...'"

We got there at around 11pm. A waitress challenged Sharon to produce some ID. "Why, are we too old to come in?" quavered Sharon. The waitress looked at us more closely and waved us through. It transpired that for a brief moment, she had thought that Sharon might be under 20, and therefore not allowed to drink alcohol. As Sharon last saw 20 around the same time that the Labour party last saw government, she was naturally delighted. The Barinn, once attained, could never live up to expectations. Dark, wooden and crowded, it was full of beautiful people who ignored us and a sprinkling of other trendsurfing Brits, detectable by their shocked expressions when asked to pay pounds 7 for two beers. Despite Sharon's bootcuts and youthful demeanour, we felt we didn't fit in, and left to rejoin the procession of bar-hoppers trawling endlessly up and down the main drag.

We decided to recuperate the next day with a swim in the Blue Lagoon (Blaalonid). Though several of the organised tours from our hotel visited it, they were all expensive and took a day, so we decided to make the 40-minute journey by bus. The name Blue Lagoon had inspired visions of clear glacial waters. The reality was rather more scary - a broiling sulphuric soup that had started life as seawater before being warmed beneath the earth's crust, used to fuel a power station, then spewed out again for tourists to swim in. The pale blue water was scalding, and occasionally the steam would part to reveal the pipes of the power station looming overhead. Apparently a dip in the Blue Lagoon is good for psoriasis, as the water is full of algae. So we doggy-paddled around, trying not to get any of the reeking water in our mouths, until Sharon started to feel nauseous and our hair solidified into wedges.

After a couple of hours back at the hotel with some conditioner, a stiff brush and stiff drinks, we were ready to hit the town again. But instead, we spent the night slumbering in front of the television. The waters of the Blue Lagoon obviously had narcotic powers. But the trip out there had shown us enough of Iceland's natural beauty to convince us that we wanted to return. Next time, though, we'll skip the nightspots of Reykjavik and head straight for the wilderness. Assuming Sharon's heated rollers will fit into a rucksack.

reykjavik fact file

Icelandair Holidays (tel: 0171 388 5599) is offering some excellent deals. On 21 February you can fly to Rekyjavik from London Heathrow, spend one night in a four-star hotel for pounds 149 including transfers, breakfast and taxes. From Glasgow you can get two nights for pounds 169, departing 27 February.

Otherwise, standard weekend breaks from London Heathrow start from pounds 288, and from Glasgow from pounds 252. A two-night Valentine Weekend for couples, including a trip to the Blue Lagoon, is available for pounds 290.

Day-trips to Iceland can be booked with Transun (tel: 01865 798888) whose charters fly to Rekyjavik and back in a single day, from a wide range of regional airports. Price starts at pounds 159 (including tax).