MY desire to see the Northern Lights has taken me to the Arctic Circle twice.
And while I have yet to witness the phenomenon of the aurora borealis, described as one of Mother Nature’s masterpieces, I have now experienced the unique environment of Iceland, a place that spans two continents, where the elements are harsh yet captivating, natural yet surreal.
Until recently, Iceland was not a typical holiday destination or a city break attraction. Now tourism on this breathtaking island is growing fast.
The country has been catapulted on the world stage in recent years with the financial crisis and the volcanic ash cloud responsible for causing air travel chaos — but which also alerted the world to this country’s extreme unique environment, bringing a fresh intrigue to the natural beauty of this relatively little known land.
Until now, I was under the popular misapprehension that Iceland was a hard to reach place. In fact, it is only around two-and-half hours away from Manchester with no time difference, making it a great place for a weekend city break to get a flavour of the place or a longer holiday to explore its unforgettable natural wonders, which will inevitably draw you back.
Highlights include the almost fantastical Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, an ideal place to stop and enjoy a pampering on the way from the airport before reaching the hotel. With minus temperatures outside, soaking in a hot mineral bath inside the Blue Lagoon is an experience like no other. It feels stunningly magical and is amazing for the skin, with some in our group saying it helped alleviate their skin complaints.
I decided to stay and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of the hot springs, including the most unusual massage that takes place in the lagoon, while others in our party went to explore the surrounding intriguing landscape by quad bike.
The Northern Lights may have remained elusive this time, but there was plenty of other natural splendours to see — the raw, volcanic landscape, geysers and waterfalls, which showed the influence of the island’s underlying molten magma. We also enjoyed the peace, space and atmosphere, which continues on into the night with the clearest skies you will ever see. Known as the Golden Circle, it is a place where you don’t sleep with the curtains closed. Civilisation is found in Reykjavik, where food and culture can be enjoyed in equal measures together with warm Scandinavian hospitality.
You could try shark, although I think it’s most definitely an acquired taste, or the fabulous tapas restaurant overlooking the harbour. The market offers more delicacies ranging from the delicious to the strange. This most beautiful city has plenty of bars — including one owned by the lead singer of Blur — and is perfect for a weekend with friends or as a romantic getaway. Or, coupled with the trips to other parts of Iceland, it would make a great place to end a family holiday.
One must on your itinerary is Hallgrímskirkja church with its iconic 73m tower. The largest church in Iceland, it was completed in 1986 and its design is said to have been based on the lava flows of the country’s landscape.
Iceland is fast being recognised as the go-to location for directors looking for a visual feast of stunning backdrops and diverse scenery. The Game of Thrones TV series has been filmed here as have movies Thor 2: The Dark World and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, while other locations such as Stykkishólmur in the Westfjords to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, are in great demand.
Ben Stiller, star of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, said recently: “Iceland is a very special place. There is something about the landscape, the quality of the light and the energy of the place that makes it like no other.
“To be there every day and experience the extreme weather changes was really invigorating. Pretty much every time I watch the movie I want to go back.”
And that’s the key thing you need to know about Iceland — it’s a place that you don’t visit just once.