Travel review, Iceland: Warm welcome melts the cold away
PUBLISHED: 08:00 05 June 2016
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Jenny Woolf braved winter storms and sub-zero temperatures to take in dramatic views and swim in the world famous Blue Lagoon.
So there I was, gazing through the plane window at a icy-white landscape set in a glacial sea. Iceland looked very, very cold.
Actually I hadn’t planned to go there at all – but when I’d booked my February flight to Florida, a stopover in Keflavik turned out to be a free optional extra; so of course, I said “yes”.
Andi, owner of the guesthouse I’d booked, was waiting for us at the airport, and his warm welcome would have melted any amount of ice.
His B&B, Guesthouse 1x6, overlooks the sea and is cheerfully and quirkily decorated, with a charmingly retro 1950s guest lounge and recycled furniture.
But the real secret of its success is the hospitality of Andi and his partner, Yuki. Nothing seemed too much trouble for them, and staying with them was like staying with kindly relatives.
Icelandic weather can be unpredictable, even dangerous in winter, so I’d decided not to hire a car. Instead, I organised a friendly and capable outdoor guide called Thorsteinn Ragnarsson to take us sightseeing in his new 4x4.
The scenery in Reykjanes peninsula, southwest of the capital Reykjavik, is not that dramatic by Icelandic standards, but it was plenty dramatic enough for us.
Within minutes of driving off with Thorsteinn, we were surrounded by an unearthly monochrome landscape of jagged black lava and glaring white snow. Clouds of sulphurous steam puffed from the ground, streaming rapidly towards the dim horizon, as if from a dragon’s underground lair. The little black church in the hamlet of Hvalsnes, its graveyard half buried in drifts, had a distinctly gothic atmosphere. Along the coast, a wild blue-grey sea hurled itself at great pointed black rocks.
Seabirds shrieked, wind howled, skies lowered and I half expected to see the Dark Lord of Mordor striding past.
Whenever we left the car, screaming winds flung ice horizontally into our faces and tore at our winter gear.
We drove higher, and a frozen lake spread out in a valley to one side.
Icicles twice the size of a man appeared out of the snow on the other side, and I realised we could hardly see the guideposts marking the sides of the road.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, total whiteness descended, the wheels spun, and we stopped, caught in a full blown blizzard.
Thorsteinn wasn’t bothered. He leaped from the car, paced the distance to the invisible edge of the road, leaped back in, gunned the engine, rolled backwards out of the drift and turned perfectly amidst the impenetrable whiteness.
Wipers whirring, we inched downhill and were soon on the main road again.
The snow faded, and the sun came out again.
Ahead of us, on the horizon, was the complicated structure of a geothermal plant.
Iceland gets most of its energy from the magma that boils up from the earth’s core, and this particular geothermal plant had, we learned, helped to create Iceland’s most famous tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon.
In 1976, as the plant was being constructed, local people noticed that the eerily turquoise-blue water and white mud in the excavated area was healing the skin conditions of anyone who swam there.
Eventually, a large hot lake was formed, and over the years, it has been developed into an outdoor swimming area and a well-equipped spa. Unless you fancy running outside in sub-zero temperatures, though, it’s best to enter the section of the pool which runs inside the main building.
The water’s pleasantly warm, so when you’re acclimatised, you swim through a gate and into the open air, where the water is much hotter.
It is an extraordinary feeling to float through a translucent veil of white mist that muffles all sound, and see the bluewater shimmering around you.
As the day fades, illuminated bridges and pontoons in the lake start twinkling with light, and swimmers gravitate to the floating bar for drinks.
I wondered what the Vikings would have thought of the Blue Lagoon.
Apparently modern Icelanders can still understand the old Norse sagas in the original language, because they are so closely descended from Vikings – so said the lady in Keflavik’s Viking Museum next day.
From the outside, the museum doesn’t look that large, but, Tardis-like, it’s much bigger inside, and very interesting.
We clambered all over a full-sized replica Viking longboat -– it had actually crossed the Atlantic -– saw well-made documentaries (in English) and poured over dioramas, artefacts and whole rooms of colourful art and sound.
It illuminated so many aspects of Viking life and history.
I was really sorry when we had to leave Iceland.
As Andi dropped us at the airport to catch our onward flight, another huge storm began rolling in.
An hour later, as I sat watching the wings being de-iced, on a plane rocking violently in the buffeting wind, I wondered if the flight might be cancelled.
But no. “It takes more than this to stop Icelanders,” laughed the flight-attendant.
As we rose slowly and unsteadily through those swirling clouds, tossed about by what felt like a hurricane, I did wonder if any of the rollercoasters in Orlando could possibly match this for stomach-dropping thrills.
Challenging though it was, Iceland was amazing, and I definitely want to visit again and for longer next time.
If I go in winter, though, I’ll make sure my onward trip is to an equally wintry destination.
Dragging all those scarves, gloves, and fur boots round sub-tropical Orlando during the next 10 days was anything but convenient, but that’s another story!