Ten things you can only do in Iceland
OK, so it’s a guaranteed green-lister, but what else does Iceland have going for it? Well, you’re unlikely to be walking inside any living glaciers anywhere else at the moment, that’s for sure. From hallucinogenic fish to industrial-strength healing, Ed Grenby highlights ten holiday highs you’ll only find in this fascinating island nation…
Tölt like a champion
Icelandic horses, you will not by now be surprised to learn, do things differently from every other equine on the planet. While horses elsewhere have just four gaits (walk, trot, canter, gallop), their island cousins, introduced by Vikings, insist on adding another – the tölt – that falls in between a trot and canter. And what’s that to us humans? Well, it makes for an unusually comfortable ride, and thus a great way to get out and see the country’s ends-of-the-earth scenery. Íshestar has good day trips.
No sniggering at the back: 54 per cent of Icelanders believe elves are real, and you can find numerous examples of roads built curving round areas thought to be their home, as well as tiny elf houses (opening image). If you want to learn why locals are so fond of their huldufólk (hidden people), your best bet is to spend an afternoon at Elfschool, where eccentric but earnest headmaster Magnus delivers his lectures with twinkle-eyed good humour and, crucially, pancakes with jam and whipped cream.
Walk through a glacier
Forty metres long, and 550 metres deep beneath the snow-dusted moonscape surface — if you’ve ever wondered what life would be like inside an ice cube, this tunnel into the heart of Langjökull glacier is your chance to find out. Into The Glacier tours do exactly what it says on the side of their 8x8 monster truck by opening a portal to the serene, surreal, neon-blue netherworld within the ice. Worried it’s going to suddenly melt on you? Chill out – it’s been there for 125,000 years already.
Embrace wellness… at a power plant
Don’t be fooled by the soothing, spa-like, soft-focus pictures on the website: the Blue Lagoon is actually a man-made set of pits filled with the run-off water from the next-door power station. That said, in Iceland even the industrial is ethereal: the power plant is an all-eco geothermal job, and the water gets its gorgeous milky aquamarine hue and skin-enriching properties from naturally occurring silica, salts and algae. And relax…
Enter a volcano
It’s via the crater of an Icelandic volcano that the heroes of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth reach their subterranean goal. You won’t – double spoiler alert! – meet any dinosaurs on your version of the trip, but a six-minute cable-lift descent straight down the volcano’s shaft brings you to a vast, otherworldly cavern whose walls gleam with multi-coloured minerals. For 40 too-short minutes, Inside The Volcano will ensure that your mind is blown like an erupting caldera.
Get high on rotting shark
With booze banned in Iceland until 1922, locals needed something else to get them through those long winter nights. And, since saga times, they’ve been burying shark in sand for a few weeks until it starts to putrefy, at which point it also becomes mildly hallucinogenic. The only trouble is: this hákarl is unutterably disgusting, both smelling and tasting of its high urea content. Try it, if you must, at Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum or from larger supermarkets.
Visit a museum everyone will actually enjoy
Iceland has more museums per head than any other country (the northern village of Flateyri alone has six — and only 267 citizens), so it’s no surprise that some of them are a little obscure. Swerve those devoted to stuffed aquatic birds, the herring industry and, um, some stones, but earn your companions’ undying appreciation with trips to the museums of Witchcraft & Sorcery, Arcade Games, Sea Monsters, Penises, Ghosts, Elves & Trolls and the surprisingly beautiful Library of Water.
See the Northern Lights in your swimsuit
The Blue Lagoon isn’t Iceland’s only naturally geothermal-heated pool: in fact, pretty much every town has its own, often municipally run and something of an unofficial community centre. You’ll need a bit of luck to catch the aurora borealis, of course, but head northwest to the quiet, light-pollutionless Westfjords region for your best shot. Birkimelur is a fine example.
Snorkel from one continent to another
Not content with being the site of the world’s oldest parliament, show-off Thingvellir is also the spot where the American and Eurasian continental plates meet and shift: the rift, which grows 2.5cm wider every year, is clearly visible. Fed only by aquifers from beneath the Earth’s crust, the waters here are some of the most beautifully, luminously clear on the planet. Sure, there’s a bridge across it, but pop on a cosy dry-suit with a company such as Dive.Is and snorkel or scuba from one side of the world to the other…
Go full Viking
Visit the history museums by all means (there are several very good ones) and read the original literature if you’re keen (start with action-packed Egil’s Saga) but, if you truly want to immerse yourself in the authentic Old Norse traditions, dress up in knock-off chain mail and faux fur, grab a replica axe from the rack, pull your fiercest face – and take home a souvenir ‘Viking portrait’ from Mink, run by a photographer who worked on Game of Thrones when it was shot in Iceland. Nice big scowl for the camera now!