Spring has arrived in IcelandCREDIT: GETTY
25 April 2018 • 11:00am
Iceland is most often seen as a winter (think Northern Lights and blankets of white) destination or summer (endless days and al fresco dining) adventure, but there's a lot to be said for visiting now, just as spring has sprung. It's only a three hour flight from London - here are 29 of the many reasons to go and visit...
1. It’s even weirder than you imagine.
Yes, we know you know this, but nothing prepares you for the sheer wackiness of Iceland’s geography. Expect lonely lava plains, steaming hillocks and an all-pervading scent of egg - and that’s just the drive from the airport. This land of spurty geysers and feisty volcanoes is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates collide, resulting in some of the eeriest rock formations and black sand beaches you’ll ever clap eyes on – usually with their very own sulphur-scented smoke effects.
Iceland remains other-worldly all year round CREDIT: GETTY
2. But it feels like home
Iceland looks otherworldly, but it’s also nicely familiar too. Yes, you can dine on fermented shark and puffin burgers, and more people there are said to believe in trolls and fairies than in any organised religion; but equally, everyone speaks excellent English, they’re obsessed with horses, and do a very nice line in woolly jumpers.
3. It’s amazing for road trips
With quiet, well-maintained roads and invigorating scenery, this is prime road trip territory – even though the speed limit is a modest 90km/h on the highway. Still, when you’re trundling along at 55mph, there’s plenty of opportunity to gawp at Iceland’s superlative scenery.
4. And perfect for cycling
Whether you want to test your mettle on challenging hill climbs or take an easy ride over flat stream-strewn plains, Iceland’s bike trails are varied and gloriously crowd-free.
Not a bad spot for a pedal Credit: AP
5. But horseback is the best way to get around
“Iceland’s horses are small, very hardy and are blessed with an extra gear,” discovered television presenter and Telegraph Travel columnist Fiona Bruce when she ventured to Reykjavik. “Whereas all other horses walk, trot, canter and gallop, in Iceland they have an extra four-beat gait called a tolt.” Once you’ve found your rhythm, travelling by horseback offers both a thrilling ride and a profound connection with the natural landscape.
6. You can dive between continents
Strap on your scuba gear in Lake Þingvallavatn to descend between what is, essentially, the gap between two continents (Þingvellir National Park straddles the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates). The lake is filled with glacier run-off water, with super-clear visibility up to 200 metres and some very spooky drop-offs and rock formations. You’ll need an Open Water qualification to dive, but anybody can join the guided snorkelling trips. Try Arctic Adventures or Dive.is for tours.
Diving in Þingvellir National Park Credit: AP
7. And descend into a volcano
You know those rickety-looking lifts that window cleaners use on skyscrapers? That’s how you’ll be lowered into the belly of Thrihnukagigur volcano. Navigating the 120-metre drop is like descending through the roof of a fire-coloured cathedral. The last eruption occurred thousands of years ago, but the inside of the cavern is stained with russet red scars and flashes of blackened indigo. Once inside, you’ll have an hour to roam freely, with headtorches provided. Tours are operated by Inside the Volcano.
8. It’s just as good as it looks on Game of Thrones
“Producers made do with artificial snow in season one, but have relied on the wilds of Iceland ever since," writes Oliver Smith, Telegraph Travel’s resident GoT superfan. "Lake Myvatn, near the town of Akureyri, is where Mance Rayder’s wildling army makes camp in season three, while the nearby cave of Grjotagja is where Jon Snow and Ygritte sleep together. Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier, also appears.”
Grjotagja, the cave where Jon Snow and Ygritte sleep together Credit: estivillml - Fotolia
9. Elves rule
“The one thing you must never do in Iceland is upset an elf,” warns Telegraph Travel's Mike Unwin. Iceland’s Huldufólk are everywhere – hiding behind rocks, behind waterfalls, and even in glaciers and volcanoes. Disturb them at your peril.
10. It’s family-friendly
Family values are important in Iceland, so you’ll get a warm reception if you’re travelling with your brood. Campsites and hotels are largely geared up for kids, and there’s a reassuring lack of dangerous wildlife. While the landscapes can be less child-friendly (watch out for cliffs, water-logged areas and changing sea conditions in particular), their mythical stories of elves and trolls will keep kids enthralled.
11. The hot springs are amazing
The Blue Lagoon pools are at the top of most visitors’ agendas, but if overcrowded tourist traps aren’t your thing you’ll find far more spectacular geothermic hot pools dotted around Iceland’s countryside. Ask locals for their recommendations when you arrive in a new town, as everyone has their favourite secret spot. What's more is the Blue Lagoon has just opened its own luxury hotel.
12. Go camping, and you’ll wake up to views like this
Not bad, eh?
Sunrise at Jokulsarlon Lake Credit: AP
13. Icelanders love live music
With a music festival for virtually every month, Iceland caters for every music taste. Take your pick from the likes of atmospheric Dark Music Days (January), dancy and buzzy Sónar Reykjavik (February), midnight sun-drenched Secret Solstice (June), and longstanding favourite Iceland Airwaves (November).
14. Reykjavik offers a top night out
Iceland’s capital city is an “outstanding cultural hub, with not only galleries, theatres, museums and public gardens to satisfy the most avid of culture vultures, but 40 annual festivals and events,” writes Telegraph Travel's Lindsey McWhinnie in our cultural guide to Reykjavik. Hotspots for sampling local craft beers include ale geeks' favourite Micro, Slippbarinn (which does a mean sideline in cocktails) and The Laundromat Café – a quirky spot, with actual washing machines. Quite handy if you've been on the road for a while.
15. Its ice caves are amazing
You can actually venture inside the Langjokull glacier, in a manmade tunnel that burrows deep into the ice. Book your tour through Into the Glacier.
16. And there are icebergs on the beach
Head to Jokulsarlon beach where table-sized icebergs tumble in the surf, tossed around like glassy glacier mints on the black sand beach. Utterly surreal.
The icebergs of Jokulsarlon beach Credit: AP
17. You’ll have east Iceland to yourself
As virtually all commercial planes fly into Reykjavik, make the effort to catch a connecting flight to Egilsstadir and you’ll be rewarded with crowd-free landscapes stuffed with ice-capped volcanoes, hot springs, windswept villages and towering waterfalls to rival its western counterparts.
You'll have most of the east coast to yourself Credit: AP
18. You’ll feel like a proper explorer
Vatnajokull, Jokulsarlon, Seljalandsfoss… just getting your mouth around the pronunciation of some of Iceland’s must-see attractions is a challenge – and don’t even get us started on spellings. When well-meaning friends ask where you’re headed, simply throw a few vowels together and hope for the best.
19. It’s remarkably well-connected
The 4G network is extensive throughout Iceland, and most hotels offer free Wi-Fi as a standard. You might feel like you're in a remote place, but it’s actually really easy to stay connected.
20. The food is… interesting
While you might not have the stomach for fermented shark and smoked puffin – both rather dubious national specialities – Iceland does a mean hearty dinner. At the end of a long day’s excursion, you’ll want to refuel on lamb chops and butter-drenched potatoes, or a gutsy stew stuffed with locally-sourced vegetables. Because many ingredients are imported, food tends to be expensive – so budget around £30 for a meal in an average restaurant.
21. It’s brilliant for birdwatching
If you’re a keen birdwatcher like Mike Unwin, you won’t be disappointed by northern Iceland: “Lake Myvatn brought a pageant of northern waterfowl, from gaudy harlequin ducks to golden-tufted Slavonian grebes. The next day we moored in Skjalfandi Bay and zipped over by zodiac to the delightful Flatey Island. Here puffins lined the cliffs, red-necked phalaropes pirouetted in the shallows and ptarmigan strutted along the low roof of the school house.”
22. It’s a great spot to spy the Northern Lights
But obviously not at this time of year. Instead you'll be witness to the days growing longer and longer as the country edges towards its Summer Solstice (sunset is already half nine) and the Midnight Sun, when daylight barely recedes.
23. Hollywood loves it
Unsurprisingly, Iceland has played host to dozens of Hollywood blockbusters, its serene and surreal landscapes attracting an abundance of directors and film crews. “It’s clearly a land beloved of cinematographers,” wrote Telegraph Travel's Hugh Morris after exploring the bits of Iceland that were featured in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “[In Interstellar], Matthew McConaughey sought another world here. [In Noah], Russell Crowe reckoned on mankind’s second coming among its hills, with two of each animal in tow. [In Prometheus], Michael Fassbender arrived to fathom the furthest galaxy’s darkest secrets.”
24. There are perfect puffins
In April the puffins return from the ocean to land, settling on the Icelandic coast to build their nests in rocky cliffs. The south coast near Vik, the Westman Islands and Latrabjarg cliff in the Westfjords are all good spots to admire the tiny, colourful birds before they head back out to see in late summer. And then there are the lambs...
Soaking up the midnight sun Credit: AP
25. It’s the land of the Super Jeep
Eight-wheeled tractor-sized trucks are, quite simply, the best (and only) way to cross glaciers and volcanic crater-pocked plains. Your holiday rental Ford Fiesta will never feel the same again.
26. It’s Europe’s best place for whale watching
Humpbacks, minkes, bottlenose and blues ply the fish-rich North Atlantic and Arctic waters around Iceland, particularly between April and October. Many whale watching tours depart from Reykjavik, but the best place to see them is from Husavik on the north coast. Local operators boast over 99 per cent success rates for sightings, and the surroundings – a quiet, calm bay flanked by snow-capped mountains – are magical.
27. It’s refreshingly tolerant
Iceland had the first democratically elected female president in the world: Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who served from 1980 to 1996, as well as the world’s first openly gay head of government, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir (2009-2013), who oversaw the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
28. It shares a language with Vikings
The Icelandic language is practically unchanged from ancient Norse. So if you learn a few phrases, you essentially become a Viking.
29. You can fly there for free
Sort of. Icelandair has, since the 1960s, offered passengers the chance to enjoy a free stopover in Iceland if they're booked onto one of its Transatlantic flights. So if you happen to be headed to the States anyway, why not take a week to explore Iceland on the way?