Iceland is famous for many things and this is amazing for a country with a population of less than 325,000. To put that into context, China has more than 160 cities of three times that size and the Wirral is home to 320,000 people. And yet within this small, proud, unique nation there is so much to see and do, so many fascinating footnotes and so much that makes it special. Iceland has virtually no violent crime, no army (the coast guard is in charge of its defences!), has the smallest gender inequality of any nation in the world, publishes more books per capita than virtually anywhere else, uses almost entirely renewable energy and has a telephone directory that uses first names!
Not to mention the music of Bjork and Sigur Ros, food that AA Gill claims to be the best in the world (an assertion with which we wholeheartedly agree), the geothermal spa of the Blue Lagoon in which you can’t fail to relax, the wonderment of the Northern Lights, an entrancing mountain-fringed capital city and a hipster scene that blends effortlessly with a drinking culture that rivals Britain. Oh, and we forgot to add a wickedly dark sense of humour, majestic coffee, amazing waterfalls and myriad intriguing geological phenomena, great happy hours and a widespread belief in huldufolk. (That’s elves by the way.)
We could go on, but instead, without enumerating every single thing that we love about Iceland, here’s our top three.
Food in Iceland
The food in Iceland is sublime, as is befitting a Nordic and Scandinavian country. They are well and truly on the New Nordic Cuisine bandwagon and whilst many may choose to focus on the well known “delicacy” of decomposing shark, we prefer to think about the imaginative use of the local berries, mosses and other foraged ingredients, as well as the superb, sweet local lamb and unsurprisingly first class seafood.
Restaurants such as Sjavargrillid, Fridrik V, Dill and 3 Frakkar Hja Ulfari are pushing back the boundaries and combining the ancient and the ultra-modern, both in techniques and ingredients; and the results are magnificent. Prices by UK standards are good, with four courses and accompanying wine at Sjavargrillid a bargain at around £80. An amuse of tuna sashimi was fresh and delightful, ling and langoustine perfectly seasoned, sweet and sultry, lamb three ways superb, with more berries, reductions, emulsions, pickles and preserves than have any right to work together…but of course they did. The only bad piece of food was an awful shag: salty, gamey, rich and offal-esque; but the accompanying puffin (quite like duck) and minke whale were superb, whilst once again the colours, textures and flavours of Iceland were all singing to outdo one another, yet somehow singing the same song.
The Blue Lagoon
After staying up much of the night to see the Northern Lights – well worth it if you get lucky, as we did – you’re bound to feel a little worse for wear. Especially if you overindulged on the hip flask of whisky whilst waiting for the ethereal greens and reds to show themselves whilst standing in a freezing field in a borrowed ski jacket that was – probably – made 55 years ago by a badly trained field mouse.
Anyway, the Blue Lagoon, about 45 minutes from Reykjavik is a geothermal spa that offers mineral-rich waters naturally heated to around 38c. The waters and mud are rich in silica and sulphur and they work wonders on the skin. They make the old look young and the flaky feel smooth. Well, apparently they are great for a number of skin conditions but what I know for sure is they work wonders on an aching body and a tired mind.
There are a variety of areas to explore, including a romantic steam cave, a hot waterfall, saunas and steam rooms, whilst finding an extra hot bit of water as the currents swirl is a joy on a cold winter’s day. After more than three hours of indulgent relaxation we felt completely renewed and I can say without a doubt, this is the finest natural spa in the world. Oh, and a top tip for the thieves among you – take a container and help yourself to the shampoo and conditioner in the showers: the same stuff is about £30 a bottle in the gift shop!
The Northern Lights
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis to use their proper name, are a naturally occurring phenomenon that can be seen in Britain on occasion but are viewable far more frequently and spectacularly further North in areas of little light pollution. Iceland offers some great opportunities, if you’re lucky, just an hour or so from the capital and it’s hard to explain the magic and mystery of seeing the Lights at their shimmering best.
Many people will go and not quite see what they hoped for but whilst some say they look more impressive on film, on a good night the naked eye will marvel at the mysterious light show above them and such an experience is hard to top. We were treated to an eerie 45 minutes of constantly changing, ebbing and flowing greens and reds that made the hours out in the cold well worth it.
The Northern Lights have beguiled, mesmerised and inspired for as long as humankind has lived and it’s easy to see why. Go and see them. You might miss out, but with Iceland offering so much else beside, if you do, it’s a great excuse to go back another time.
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