It was disorientating to leave Britain in summer and touch down just a couple of hours later in the midst of winter.
Or so it seemed when I landed in Iceland in July. It wasn't really winter but you wouldn't have known that from the waves of sea fog billowing in over black, barnacled rock, and a population swaddled in puffa jackets. But then no one goes to Iceland for a beach holiday. What the country does offer is some of the best nature tourism in Europe, and I was looking forward to experiencing a new nature-based initiative, Vatnavinir.
Loosely translated as "friends of the water", Vatnavinir is the result of a brainstorming session by the island's thinkers, tourism experts and architects, sparked by the country's economic collapse. Looking for ways to restart Iceland's tourism industry, they decided to make more of the resources they had – namely geothermal energy, dramatic landscapes and creative people – and offer tourists a unique and authentic water-based experience in some of the country's more neglected regions.
Over a bowl of salty meat soup and rye bread in Reykjavik, Anna Sverrisdottir, one of the driving forces behind the project – and a founder of the country's Blue Lagoon attraction – summed it up. "We have so much warm water in Iceland and we want to encourage more use of it, in a sustainable way. We also want to focus on what is special about different parts of the country rather than trying to create six new Blue Lagoons."
Though Vatnavinir is a long-term project, a pilot scheme has already started in the country's Westfjords region. After lunch, I drove 300km north to see some of the 12 sites there. My hosts in the Westfjords were Arnlin Oladottir and Magnus Rafnsson from Theme Travel. Long-term residents of the region, they have between them an encyclopaedic knowledge of the surrounding ecology and folklore and try to connect tourists with local people.
One of which, in my case, was Adalbjorg Oskarsdottir who lives in the small fishing village of Drangsnes. As Vatnavinir's local contact, she is involved in the management of the village's "hot pot", a series of open-access hot tubs right on the shore, filled with naturally hot spring water. "It's so nice to sit here and watch the water," she said. "If you watch for a while you'll see eider ducks, and a kind of duck kindergarten they operate, but one night we even saw a whale."
Though all are based around geothermal water, each Vatnavinir site is unique. Ranging from simple roadside hot pots to large swimming pools, from small family-friendly pools to seaweed-based spas, most are in existence already, but what Vatnavinir has done is give them suggestions for development. In consultation with the local communities, some will be spruced up with more natural landscaping while others are set for more extreme makeovers.
From Dragsnes, Arnlin, Magnus and I hiked over a mountain to the second Vatnavinir site, Gvendarlaug. A naturally warm outdoor swimming pool by the side of Hotel Laugarholl, like many of the other pools in the area it was originally built in the 1940s as a way of making sure the local, fishing-based population could swim.
Though perfectly magical as it is, surrounded by wild, open terrain, the plan here is to hide its concrete shell with more natural-looking stones. Another Vatnavinir suggestion has led to the development of two small hot pots lined atmospherically with rock and surrounded by turf. After a long journey and a strenuous hike, it was bliss to plunge in and wallow in hot water looking out at the brooding Westfjords scenery. "The landscape looks so grey and brown from a distance but up close it's not," mused Arnlin as we gazed out at a patchwork of greens, pinks, yellows and purples.
After a comfortable night's sleep, we hiked up behind the hotel, past thunderous waterfalls to a high plateau and down the other side into a steep, green valley. "September is a great time to come here," explained Magnus. "In the summer all the sheep are sent out on to the hillsides to roam free, and then the farmers go out together, in teams, to round them up again at the end of September. When they're all back in the valley the sheep are herded into pens and divided up among their owners but the process is an ancient, communal one and fit tourists are welcome to muck in too."
That evening we headed further into the Westfjords along a dirt road for a simple supper at Hotel Djupavik. It is a quirky place, built from the remains of a 1930s herring factory, and its period architecture and characterful owners have attracted the likes of Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros. For us, though, it was just a staging post en route to the next Vatnavinir site, Krossnes.
Our aim was to swim there in the midnight sun. As we drove, Magnus kept us awake with tales of ancient black market traders, of Basques inter-marrying with Icelanders and of magicians appearing out of the sea and disappearing into the mountains. By the time we arrived at Krossnes, it didn't matter that the sun had slipped behind an angry, slate-coloured cloud.
The next day we would visit a huge outdoor pool in Reykjanes, a hot pot in the idyllic, buttercup-filled valley of Heydalur and try a seaweed bath in Reykholar. But it's Krossnes that sticks in the memory most. Swimming in the hot pool there, looking out in the gloaming at wild waves crashing on to a driftwood-littered shore, it didn't feel that we were experiencing nature so much as being part of it.
How to get there
Rhiannon Batten travelled to Iceland with Icelandair (084 4811 1190; icelandair.co.uk), which flies to Reykjavik from Glasgow, Manchester, and London from £216 return. Similar trips with Theme Travel (00 354 451 3384; theme-travel.is) cost from £270 per person for three days (based on a group of four), including guiding and full-board accommodation, but not transport from Reykjavik to the Westfjords; bus tickets from Reykjavik to the Westfjords cost about £30 each way.
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