When the great British summer drizzles into view, sensible holidaymakers head south for sun-kissed landscapes and warm sand beneath their feet.
They don’t travel to a country where the weather is colder and less predictable than at home. Where the days are so long that forgetting to draw your curtains means a 3 am wake-up call. Where one of the country’s biggest attractions – the northern lights – has switched off for the summer. In other words, they don’t go to Iceland.
All this considered, I felt rather foolish last July as we boarded the optimistically named Wow airline headed for Reykjavik. At the capital’s Keflavik airport, we hired a car from a rental outfit called SAD cars. Did its company name stand for Seasonally Affected Disorder, I asked? The car rental employee looked at me blankly and handed me the keys. ‘Takk,’ I said (like any viewer of The Killing, Borgen or The Bridge I had worked out that this is the catch-all word for ‘Thanks’ in these parts).
The landscape around Reykjavik was a mixture of low hills and moss-covered lava fields. The sky was grey. Down came the drizzle. Why wasn’t I in Spain? My face set into a Sarah Lund-type scowl as we headed northwest towards the Snaefellsnes peninsula.
Then, past the outskirts of Reykjavik, it happened. The sun came out, huge mountains swung into view with the Arctic Ocean glistening green beyond. All of a sudden this was less like a depressing crime drama and more like a lavishly shot car advert, with the road slicing through jaw-droppingly gorgeous scenery.
We headed for the town of Grundasfjordur, population 852, a neatly laid-out place where the primary occupation is fishing, not tourism. To get into the swing of things, we ventured out on a cod fishing boat with the Laki tour company (www.lakitours.com). Out on the high seas, we circled an island that is a favourite of the world’s most dapper bird, the puffin. The black and white birds swooped down from the island and into the sea like rotund little gentlemen in tuxedos. It was their brief nesting season before they set out for the freezing Arctic where they live in flocks on the waves for months on end. Puffins look cute but they’re very tough.
We put out fishing lines to catch cod. Quickly I felt a sharp tug on the line and began to reel in my catch. An enormous silver fish burst from the water. Far bigger than any fish I have landed in British waters, this was officially a whopper. ‘Hmmm,’ said the captain, clearly unimpressed. ‘Too small. Just a pollock. Throw it back in.’
I understood what he meant when a fellow fisherman landed a cod a few minutes later. It was as long as a grown man’s arm. The Icelandic waters still teem with fish, the benefit of strict policies on over-fishing. That lunchtime we grilled our catch and ate it with butter and potatoes. About as fresh as food gets.
Driving around this beautiful peninsula, we happened upon Bjarnarhofn, a farm dedicated to an unusual product, fermented shark meat. The Icelandic delicacy comes from the Greenland shark, a creature that has adapted to Arctic waters by having a kind of anti-freeze running through its blood. This stuff is highly poisonous to humans but some bright spark discovered that allowing the meat to putrefy lets the dangerous chemicals run out of it. It is hung to dry in sheds which you are invited to walk around, but don’t miss the on-site museum, packed with curiosities. Where else would you find an exhibit that could be translated as ‘interesting things we have found in a Greenland shark’s stomach’?
At the end of the visit, the moment of truth: a cube of fermented shark meat on a cocktail stick. I’d love to report it was delicious, but imagine a piece of Emmental with an aftertaste like rotten egg and you’re somewhere close.
Another day, we climbed an extinct volcano and peered inside its dark crater before travelling on to visit Vatnshellir caves – to be more accurate, the ‘caves’ are lava tubes formed eight thousand years ago during a volcanic eruption, when lava forced itself through the ground and left an empty tube in its wake. On the way back from the caves we passed the towering Snaefell glacier, which Jules Verne described as the starting point in his Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Iceland is a country that makes you wish you’d paid more attention in geography lessons.
We visited the public swimming baths in the pretty fishing town of Stykkisholmur. Icelandic people have firm ideas on public bathing and cleanliness, which involves showering in the nude in a communal shower before heading to the baths. Once I had got over that shock, I stepped out into the chilly air. The pool was enormous, very warm and surrounded by hot tubs or, as Icelanders endearingly call them, ‘hotpots’. Almost all Icelandic water is heated from geothermal sources.
Another day and another chapter in our Boys’ Own Adventure tour of Iceland with a visit to a local horse farm. Apart from the omnipresent sheep, the most noticeable animal in Iceland is its native horse, a unique breed probably brought to the island by the Vikings. The sturdy little horses (make sure you don’t call them ponies within earshot of an Icelander) are revered and protected. Laws prevent horses being imported into Iceland and an Icelandic horse that leaves the country is not allowed to return. As a result, disease is virtually unknown. The horses have two extra gaits besides the usual walk, trot, canter and gallop. One is an ambling gait known as the tolt and the other is a smooth form of galloping. Apparently you can drink a glass of wine while your horse does this flying pace. I didn’t have a chance to find out but I did have a pleasant hack across fields and along a beach. On the way back I noticed a signpost to a nearby prison. ‘Are dangerous people kept there?’ I asked my guide. ‘No, just naughty bankers,’ she replied.
Reykjavik beckoned for the last few days of our holiday. The city is more of a town really with only 120,000 inhabitants (the whole island’s population is only 320,000), but for its diminutive size it is abuzz with stylish bars and restaurants. Highlights were the Hallgrimskirkja church completed in 1986 and the Volcano Museum, which shows films about eruptions on the island, including the Eyjafjallajokull volcano which erupted in 2010 and sent an ash cloud over Europe that left ten million people stranded.
Iceland is a truly magical country full of natural wonders, geysers, waterfalls, glaciers and a sensational coastline. Next time I’m going to visit in winter and catch those northern lights.