16 June 2021

We caught an early flight into Keflavik from Manchester, taking just under three hours, and landed in sub-zero temperatures. It was still dark when we arrived, even though it was past ten o clock by the time we had cleared passport control and made it out of the airport. We headed straight for the Blue Lagoon – it's only twenty minutes from the airport and on the way to Reykjavik, so it makes sense to visit either as soon as you arrive, or just before you leave. It’s the perfect way to de-stress after an early flight, and you can watch the sunrise over Iceland's rugged landscape on the journey there.

As far as tourist traps go, the Blue Lagoon has been one of my favourites. It is much bigger than the impression I’d had from photos with plenty of little areas to explore and relax in. The depth is even throughout – just deep enough to submerge yourself in the balmy water to keep your shoulders from the chilly arctic air, but shallow enough that any non-swimmer needn’t worry about finding themselves out of their depth. The geothermal seawater is naturally renewed every forty hours, as well as being regularly tested to ensure cleanliness.

There are a number of different packages on offer, including towel and robe hire, spa treatments and dining at the on-site restaurant, but we just went for a simple option that included locker hire for our suitcases and a basic mud-facial (my skin has never felt as fabulous!). A few hours is just long enough to unwind before moving on to the city, about forty minutes further on. If you travel in the winter like we did, the sun will now be setting again.

The scenery is like no other I have seen before – the pinky sky casts an otherworldly hue over huge moss-covered volcanic boulders, littering the ground for miles and miles, until you reach the city. Once in Reykjavik, the skyline is dominated by Mt Esja, a huge basalt range about 10km away, completely dusted with snow when we visited in December.

The city is small – the main shopping street stretches only around two kilometres from Hlemmur Square to Ingolfur Square and is pedestrianised for much of it. Here and its intersecting streets are where you’ll find the majority of the shops, restaurants and bars. Continuing North-West from here will bring you to the harbour, where you can catch a whale-watching tour, or boat excursions to see the Northern Lights out at sea. Heading back East along the Shore and Sculpture Walk will take you past Harpa, a striking glass concert hall on the seafront, and then for another three to four kilometres with views out to Mount Esja to the North.

Dining is notoriously expensive in Iceland, but you can find places to eat that won’t break the bank. On our first night we found a great little place that served nothing but soup. There were three choices on the menu and each came served inside a hollowed out crusty roll – perfect for warming up after a few hours exploring.

On our first night we had arranged to go and hunt down the Northern Lights. Our driver picked us up around eight and drove us around an hour out of the city away from any light pollution. After around fifteen minutes of waiting next to a little wooden hut to shield from the cold we caught our first glimpse of the alien green aurora dancing slowly across the black sky. We watched for around half an hour before the cold became too much to bear. It was unseasonably cold when we visited – it was between minus ten and minus twenty out of the city, and even through several layers of thermals and high-quality winter coats we shivered.

Our next full day of exploring began early in the morning straight after breakfast with another hour-long drive out of the city to Thingvellir National Park, the site of the ‘Althing’, Iceland's annual Parliament for almost nine-hundred years until the eighteenth century. Here you can observe the cracks and fissures in the landscape where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet and stand between them. Some of the rifts are submerged beneath crystal clear water and it is possible to dive in a few locations.

The next stop took us to Gulfoss, a spectacular waterfall on the Hvita river. At almost minus twenty it seemed incomprehensible that water could be flowing – a slick of pale blue through snowy surroundings – the mist in the air from the falls was settling on our eyebrows and eyelashes and turning to ice.

Our final stop to complete the Golden Circle was to Geysir and Strokkur, just as the sun was disappearing beneath the horizon again. We walked around bubbling steaming mud pools in the ground that looked like puddles of acid and smelled of sulphur, to get to the geysers.

Strokkur is the most impressive, erupting every five minutes or so, spewing a fountain of boiling water and steam around twenty metres into the air. After ardently waiting with cameras to capture the eruption a few times we headed off back to the city for the evening.

We managed to hunt down a little food hall on the edge of town with maybe a dozen quirky outlets, all serving up tiny menus, but giving enough choice between all of them to satisfy any taste imaginable, from local seafood to burgers, and Asian to Mexican dishes. It cost us the equivalent of less than thirty pounds for dinner, which is an absolute bargain by Icelandic standards.

Reykjavik has great nightlife, with plenty of bars to choose from along Laugavegur that stay open past midnight most evenings. Iceland's proximity to North America means that there are a huge number of tourists from the USA, as well as many Europeans. Everyone is warmly welcomed by the locals and English is widely and well-spoken in the city.

We found all the locals to be well-humoured and patriotic; fiercely proud of their Viking and Norse Heritage. They will indulge fondly in any discussion around Icelandic folklore – many still believe in elves even, and our driver even told us how roads had been re-routed to avoid disturbing rocks where elves were rumoured to have lived. We found that the locals did not respond well to poor time-keeping – several times we witnessed fellow tourists be brusquely scolded for not being back at a meeting point by a pre-agreed time. Laziness and sloppiness are rejected and huge importance is placed on self-sufficiency, both as individuals and as a nation. Iceland is 100% energy self-sufficient, and they farm most of their crops in greenhouses, heated by geothermal energy and supplied with artificial light to supplement the lack of daylight hours in the winter.

On our final day we headed back to the airport early before the sun rose to catch our flight home. We witnessed the eerie landscape emerge once more from the dark, wondering if elves or trolls might have called some of these rocks home. From its moon-like terrain to the permanent state of sunrise-sunset, you could quite easily imagine yourself in another world. I think it’s the closest I’ve been to visiting another planet, without leaving Earth.

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