April 20 2014 Latest news:
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Nigel Pickover celebrates the joys - and myriad wonders - of Iceland, land of ice and fire
There’s an evocative saying that life isn’t defined by how many breaths you take – but by how many moments your breath is taken away.
If that’s the case, then treat a trip to Iceland with a great deal of respect. For you are likely to drawing hard for air at every corner, turn, crest of a hill or bank of a river.
This place is simply magical – and a visit will leave you wanting to go back again and again.
Of all the amazing places I visited in a four-day break in August this year, one is worth very special mention.
In a small town on Iceland’s south coast my three sons and I visited a tourist information centre and were advised, calmly and without undue excitement, that a four-hour drive along the coast, more than 200 miles, was “worth the effort.”
Just look for the lagoon and you won’t miss it, I, driver for the trip, was advised.
So the big drive duly commenced and onward we went, wanting to stop – but resisting – at every waterfall and sight of plunging glacier.
We kept driving, at good pace thanks to the excellent condition of Iceland’s best carriageway.
Finally, a river leading from the lagoon came into view. Some dustbin-sized chunks of ice were flowing seaward – but could this be what all the fuss was about?
A mile further on I got my answer – and one of the most stunning sights in a lifetime dedicated to travel and adventure.
Pulling into a car park, we saw them. House-sized, battleship-sized, and dozens of them, beautiful, white-blue icebergs, the first I, or the boys, had ever seen.
I was in rapture and could hardly speak, never mind breathe.
This was the stuff of holiday dreams and we were soon aboard a tractor-cum-boat to sail into the chilly waters to take a close look at the ice and the mother-ship glacier in the distance.
The glacier, Vatnajokull, Iceland’s largest and truly incredible frozen white mass, “calves” the “bergs” in to the lagoon, where the sea, twice daily, washes in and stops the water from freezing.
I took some amazing pictures, as the sun broke through, sights I never thought I would witness.
My sons, in their 20s, were in awe too and we watched as dozens of seals fished in this playground full of codling and littered with ice blocks.
This lagoon was attractive to one James Bond, too, 007 coming here to film the blockbuster Die Another Day.
Pragmatic tourist chiefs couldn’t resist Britain’s favourite secret agent – and blocked off the tides for a while so the water cooled, ice formed and that famous car chase across the ice could take place.
At the start of the trip our first knockout moment came within minutes.
We had flown in on the excellent Iceland airline, Wow, a delightful way to start the trip.
Our Stansted afternoon departure allowed me a morning at work in Norwich – followed by a trip along the A11/M11 to the airport.
Wow took us to Keflavik, the main international airport for Iceland – one which was fully open during the volcanic ash crisis two years ago.
We picked our hire car – and within 20 minutes had arrived at the Blue Lagoon, an amazing place for a holiday kick-off.
This spa, formed from the overspill waters of a geo-thermal power station, provides a wonderfully relaxing couple of hours.
The water is milky blue, hovers between warm and hot and the locals use it all year round. Wonderful!
And so it was on to the capital city of Reyjkavik, where we were based for two nights.
This is a small, port, city, home to around two-thirds of Iceland’s 300,000-plus population, swelled by thousands more in the tourist season.
Morning saw our adventures begin in earnest – and a meeting with a bear-sized character, our driver for the day, Heimir Morthens.
Big H picked up us from our hotel and took us for a… breathtaking… day on the Golden Circle tour of mountains, rivers, geysers and glaciers.
First stop was the site of the most ancient parliaments of them all, the Althing, founded by Viking settlers in faraway AD930!
Thingvellir is where two mighty tectonic plates, the European and American, face each other – and you can see and walk down the fault lines. Little wonder, then, that there are frequent earthquakes and eruptions on this mighty island!
We visited steaming geysers, at, yes, Geysir, and drove towards our first glacier, Langjokull.
This ice mass was impressive from a distance but as Heimir let down the giant tyres of our 4x4 and boldly charged down a rocky roadway-cum-spree, it became incredible.
Somehow, our driver extraordinaire avoided the canyons and car-sized boulders and drove us on to the glacier itself.
Being on one of Mother Nature’s wonderland sites, with my boys, was an incredible moment.
The waterfall at Gulfoss, an extinct volcano complete with a lake and a careering drive along three miles of shallow riverbed came next and after a day of highs it was time to head back to Reyjkavik.
Next day spectaculars came thick and fast, from steaming spouts to majestic mountains, waterfalls of dreams and mighty rivers, some stuffed with salmon at the right time of year.
Before this visit I’d been to Iceland just once – and felt compelled to take members of my family there. I’m sure they, in turn, will take their families.
Iceland magnetises you north – but you will need a heck of a lot of deep breathing for all the magic that awaits.
Oh, and remember, ‘that’ volcano?
The eruption that caused Euro-wide travel chaos was atop the Eyjafjallajokull glacier where today there is a visitor centre, festooned with incredible pictures.