Mum’s gone to Iceland

The Bath Chronicle 15 July 2006 Georgette McCready

In this restless world there is an increasing trend for people to seek something more from their holidays than merely sand, sea, sun, sangria and sex. Adventure seekers crave an adrenaline rush when they take time out from the everyday. They want genuine thrills, the scent of danger and to be able to use the word ‘extreme’ when sharing their experiences afterwards.

As the world shrinks, we are looking for a real sense of having travelled, in more ways than one.

What better place to go than Iceland – a giant adventure playground for grown-ups. And if you go in midsummer, the sun only sets for an hour or two, and there’s the chance to be active 24/7.

As the Icelanders say: “There’s plenty of time to sleep in winter.”

Before I set out for this land of the midnight sun, it seemed Iceland was on everyone’s hit list of places to see before you die. People urged me to tell them what it was like and to find out whether beer was really as expensive as they’d heard.

A lot of visitors get as far as Reykjavik but no further. A very popular long weekend destination, this compact capital city boasts a mixture of fascinating old buildings and modern development, all surrounded by the most uncomprisingly alien landscape I have ever seen – all dark rocky outcrops like a set from Dr Who.

Icelanders like to party, beginning their drinking at home (because, yes the beer is expensive at around £4.50 a pint) and then carousing out into the bars, restaurants and clubs until morning. I can’t say dawn, because in June there really isn’t daybreak, which can make you feel a bit wired after a few nights of almost constant sunshine.

The food is cosmpolitan. Visit Cafe Paris on the main square and get over the shock of the cathedral being smaller than the average English village church, and the Parliament building the size of a small town hall, by indulging in the most gorgeous, gooey carrot cake with whipped cream, washed down with the finest coffee. The city also has some fine seafood restaurants, where I was a little disconcerted to find puffin on the menus, sometimes served with a blue cheese sauce.

The average long weekend visitor is bound to take in the Blue Lagoon, just outside Reykjavik. This is a must-do if you’re going to Iceland. It’s like visiting a very modern swimming pool, with wristbands, communal changing rooms and compulsory naked showers before emerging, with bathers on, into the cold air outside and the weird experience entering the rock-lined outdour pools, their hot, pale blue waters constantly wreathed in steam. Out of the mists human figures emerge, chest-deep in water. This is a sybarite’s dream, wallowing in waters as hot as an extravagant bath, smearing oneself in natural exfoliant and eventually emerging as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and feeling euphoric.

But, come away from the bright lights of Reykjavik and Iceland’s wilderness beckons. Choose from volcanic landscapes, with geysers and hot thermal pools, or do as we did and head for the north west of the island, the Westfjords.

A 45-minute plane ride takes you north to the fishing town of Isafjordur, a good stepping off point for exploring the Westfjords. This is a friendly little town, complete with Italian restaurant with the most courteous, thoughtful chef, and it’s worth taking a wander round the old streets, looking at the pretty, painted houses and watching the workers in the fish warehouses sorting out the catch. There’s also a reconstructed old wooden fishing warehouse, now a museum where oilskins and harpoons from the days of whaling are on display, and there’s a video which gives some idea of how treacherous a living Icelandic fishermen had, and still have today.

You can set out from Isafjordur in a number of ways. There’s the new, very long and rather spooky car tunnel through the mountains, the airport with regular domestic flights, or the speedboat ferries, like very comfortable water buses. Queuing one morning to take one of these, we were joined by a family with a complete flatpack wooden house that they were transporting to build overlooking a fjord.

Or the other, most stylish way to leave Isafjordur, is by yacht. Runar Oli Karlsson and his partner have bought the 60ft yacht, formerly known as Antiope, that belonged to Robin Knox-Johnston, and which has raced round the world four times. Now re-named Aurora, it’s a very comfortable berth from which to set off on any number of adventures.

During our stay on board, Runar arranged to take us to the top of a glacier. As we prepared to leave the yacht by dinghy, with our packed lunches, three guys were heading off across the fjord into the middle of nowhere for a blokes’ weekend of walking, skiing, camping and drinking. For getting away from it all, you can’t beat Iceland.

For vast tracts of land there’s no mobile phone signal, no roads and not another soul to be seen, other than the birds wheeling overhead.

As we set out in the brilliant sunshine (don’t rely on this, Icelandic weather changes all the time), a verdant green valley unfolds. Wildflowers very similar to English flowers bloom, butterflies dance at our feet and the moss is the brightest, purest green. When we are thirsty, our guide Jon shows us that you simply lie on the plump moss by a waterfall and drink the water straight from the stream. This is the clearest, purest, freshest and most delicious water I have ever tasted.

When people have asked me what the Westfjords are like, the nearest I can get is that they’re like Narnia. Snow-capped mountains loom over clear, empty fjords, waterfalls tumble down hillsides and the air is pure and unpolluted.

There are little pockets of peopled country, little hamlets and villages, all with simple, Lutheran churches.

If you wanted a very leisurely, peaceful holiday, you could spend your days gently walking in the Westfjords. It’s a bird watcher’s paradise, with one of the largest seabird cliffs in the world to be found at Latrabjarg cliffs. There was my favourite, the puffin, fooling about on the clifftops of the westernmost point in Europe, with all the slapstick humour of a little clown. How could you think of serving him with blue cheese sauce?

At the nearby, very simple but comfortable, hotel at Breidavik, you can meet fellow guests from all over the world, who bond over breakfast in this most isolated sandy bay, talking of adventures they have had and places to visit.

If you’re camping, it’s good to know that in Iceland it’s legal to camp absolutely anywhere for one night. If you’re lucky, you can pitch next to a heated, natural pool and swim overlooking the most breathtaking views over water and mountains.

For those with an adventurous spirit, talk to Icelanders like Runar and Jon and they can arrange for strenuous adventures, such as the climb to the 3,000ft summit of Mount Kaldbakur, the highest peak in the Westfjords. Combine that with a mountain bike ride down through the foothills to the coastal track, and that’ll get the adrenaline going.

If you can visit in high summer, there are no worries about getting back to the hotel or tent before it gets dark. The adventures can go on as long as you’ve got the energy.

The Icelanders are hearty eaters (not brilliant at catering for true vegetarians), tucking into excellent fresh fish, meat stew and delicious waffles with blueberry jam and whipped cream. They also introduced me to the delights of cheese and jam sandwiches, eaten on the deck of Aurora as we sailed round the coast.

The only thing that stops Iceland being perfect, in my eyes, is the temperature of the water. The sea looks so inviting in the summer sunshine, I was desperate to swim in one of the fjords. But after it was pointed out that we were a mere ten miles below the Arctic Circle and being told adamantly that no one swims in it, and taking a surreptitious paddle, I was forced to admit defeat. So, next time I go to Iceland I’ll settle for bathing in the natural, geothermal pools, just like the locals do.