Chill out or be cool
With flights starting up this summer from Belfast to Reykjavik, it’s time to find out a bit more about Iceland. David Leffman gets the inside info
The name’s not too appealing?
Considering that Iceland dangles from the Arctic Circle between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Sea, the weather on this singular island isn't too bad.
Long summer days average 14C, and the pristine wilderness of rugged coastlines, lava deserts, glaciers, volcanoes and ice caps is appealing in a stark, romantic way.
Iceland is also comfortably small, measuring just 500km wide by 410km deep, so a week or two is enough to cover most of the sights — and even to cross the seasonally inaccessible, uninhabited interior.
Where to begin?
Reykjavik. This is Iceland's largest settlement by far, but, with a low-rise centre less than two kilometres across, it's also pleasantly manageable and relaxed.
A wander around Austurvollur Square and the main shopping drag, Laugavegur, will reveal a clutch of brightly painted corrugated-iron homes, the ponderous national parliament building and delightful Tjornin — a pond full of nesting wildfowl.
Overlooking this to the east, Hallgrimskirkja is a 73m-high church whose facade of hexagonal concrete columns echoes volcanic formations; the tower offers fantastic cityscapes.
For more views north to the snow-streaked Esja plateau, follow the harbourside walk along Saebraut, passing the shiny Solar Voyager sculpture to wind up at the old harbour (where you can see Iceland's whaling fleet, their funnels marked with an ‘H’).
To soak up some history, head south of the centre to the National Museum (00 354 530 2200; natmus.is). It opens 10am-5pm daily; admission ISK600 (£3), free on Wednesdays.
Reykjavik is rich in cafes, restaurants and clubs which have deservedly garnered the city a reputation for riotous nightlife. NASA (00 354 511 1313; nasa.is) is the place for music, and Hverfisbarinn (00 354 669 1105; hverfisbarinn.is) somewhere to pose.
Everywhere you'll encounter teenage groups doing the ‘runtur bar-crawl’. As drinking out is expensive — a lager can cost upwards of ISK800 (£4) — some visitors swig some duty-free before hitting the town.
Any, er, volcanoes?
Plenty. A trip along Route 1 will take you within erupting distance of Eyjafjallajokull, which whimpered to a halt a month ago. It is around 100km east of Reykjavik. Several operators run day trips from the capital to the volcano. Nearby Hekla is one of Iceland's most active volcanoes — it blows its top every decade or so. The 1,500m summit is best viewed from Route 26.
The fit can also hike to the summit; a trip through Arctic Adventures (00 354 562 7000; adventures.is ) costs ISK29,990 (£150).
What else can I do outdoors?
Just about anything that doesn't involve sunbathing. Hiking spots include the canyon system at north-easterly Jokulsargljufur (vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is); the three-day Laugavegur trail between Landmannalaugar's hot springs and gorgeous Alpine valleys at Thorsmork (fi.is/en/hiking-trails); and around Thorsmork itself.
For sports, try dog-sledding (dogsledding.is), bus trips across the interior (trex.is or sba.is; summer only) or climbing the country’s highest free-standing peak, 2,110m-high Hvannadalshnukur (mountainguides.is).
There isn't much skiing available in Iceland, only the fairly basic Blafjoll area outside of Reykjavik (randburg.com/is/ski). Meanwhile, Icelandic horses are stocky purebreds. One recommended operator is Ishestar (ishestar.is).
Sounds exhausting. Can I flop?
Icelanders relish their natural thermal spas. Just about every township has an outdoor heated swimming pool with hot tubs and sauna, where locals unwind and gossip. The pick of the pools are Reykjavik's 50m-long Laugardalslaug (00 354 553 4039); Borgarnes' public pool, which overlooks the ocean; Jarthbothin near Lake Myvatn (jardbodin.is), set among steaming volcanic hills; and the remote Grettislaug, a basalt-block pool on a beach in north-west Iceland.
Best of all — but accessible only during summer — are the hot springs at Landmannalaugar. These bubble up from underneath a solidified lava flow and mix with a cold stream; you wade up through the cold water until you find a spot where the temperature is just right, then immerse yourself.
How frightening is the food?
On a day-to-day basis, not at all: the burgers, pizzas and hot-dogs served up in most rural restaurants are dull, rather than scary. There's a mix of French, Italian, Chinese and Thai restaurants in Reykjavik, along with modern Icelandic places offering superb lobster, salmon and lamb dishes; Sjavarkjallarinn (Seafood Cellar 00 354 511 1212; sjavarkjallarinn.is) is well regarded for its Asian-influenced fusion cuisine.
Hard-core foodies can hunt down traditional foods, too, either in Reykjavik's restaurants or supermarket freezers: gravadlax (cured salmon); wind-dried cod (harthfiskur); pungent hakarl (fermented Greenland shark); whale meat; smoked puffin; svith (boiled sheep's head); and sursadir hruutspungar, pickled ram's testicles.
When to go
June to August is the main tourist season, when all businesses are open, roads are accessible and bus services are running. May and September are also worth considering. At other times prices are lower and people are that much happier to see you. Skip New Year and Christmas; everything is shut.
Summers are mild and wet, but winter temperatures sink as low as –20C. Don't expect much sun, any time of year.