In terms of awe-inspiring natural beauty, there are few places in the world that can match Iceland. With everything from fjords, waterfalls and lakes to volcanoes, geysers and glaciers, the island is rich with a geographical diversity that defies its size. Just when you think you’ve seen the most unforgettable landscape it can throw at you, the next stretch of the nation’s circumventing Ring Road reveals something even better. We only toured the south of the country for three days but saw more must-sees in that time than we’d have believed possible for one destination.
If ever there was a country made to be explored on wheels, Iceland is it. Although most towns and landmarks are separated by long, often remote, drives, the relentless panoramic spoils quickly have you appreciating the journey as much as the next stop. The only downside to this is that you’re forever pulling the car over to take it all in and relieve your itching shutter finger.
The secret to Iceland’s beauty lies largely in its geology: it sits astride two diverging tectonic plates, making it one of the most volcanically active sites on Earth. Consequently, much of the land is still taking shape, its raw landscapes forged by volcanic eruptions (the most active volcano, Hekla, is due for another blowout), eroded by raging waterways and carved up by majestic glaciers, not the least Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest at 8000 km_.
Our first encounter with the island’s animated foundations was the spouting steam vents at Geysir, about 125km east of Reykjavik. The country is dotted with geothermal hotspots (and accompanying spas), but Geysir’s eponymous Great Geysir – from which the word geyser derives – is the best known, despite the fact that it’s been only sporadically active in recent decades.
More reliable is its smaller neighbour Strokkur, which shoots steam 30m into the air every eight to 10 minutes. Numerous other bubbling mud pools and hissing vents also keep you on your toes (and the safety paths) as you navigate the primeval-like hillside.
Just a few kilometres away, a grassy plateau suddenly reveals the Gulfoss (Golden Falls), where two mighty rivers pour into a 70m-deep gorge. It’s not the biggest waterfall Iceland has to offer – that would be Dettifoss ?m high and 100m wide) in the north – but widely regarded as its most picturesque.
From that point on, terms of adoration spewed from our gaping jaws as we cruised across the country towards the eastern glacial realm. It was our final stop, however, that left us truly lost for words.
Situated 200km from Vik, Iceland’s tiny southernmost village, the luminous turquoise and black icebergs of the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon break the (albeit stunning) monotony of their surrounds in spectacular fashion. Fragments of the Brei_amerkurjökull glacier that looms behind them, the ancient bergs float across the icy waters in a mesmerising display that is changed subtly by the wind each hour. If it’s unlikely you’ll make it to the Arctic or Antarctic in your lifetime, this is not a bad compromise.
As we lingered wide-eyed on the shore, delaying the start of our return trip to the airport for as long as possible, we took solace in the knowledge that we’d saved the best till last – and that our journey would beat an exhibition of pickled penises any day. ?
The Blue Lagoon
Taking a dip in geothermally-heated pools is a way of life in Iceland, so it would be plain rude not to sample it yourself. The Blue Lagoon, conveniently located just a short drive from Keflavik airport, is the best place to do it and is, not surprisingly, the country’s most popular attraction. Six million litres of soothing seawater (a comfortable 37-39°C year round), a surreal open-air setting like no other, and nothing to do but sit back and soak it all in – what more could you ask for?
For those wanting the full spa experience, saunas, massage, facials and other skin treatments are available, but if you’re into DIY pampering, just help yourself to the poolside buckets of white silica mud and slather it all over – it’s meant to do wonders for the skin. Then, when you’ve had enough, wash it off under the heated
waterfall. Bliss. See www.bluelagoon.com.