I am sat deep under the ground in a 2,000-year-old lava tube, a cave-like tunnel, in total darkness. If you stay down here long enough, I am told by our guide, Oskar, your eyes adjust to the pitch black and you are eventually able to see your hand in front of your face.
This is the penultimate stop on a trip that has seen my partner, JP, and I disconnect from all our usual technological devices in an attempt to become entirely unplugged from 21st-century life. I’m always trying to do this at home, but in my line of work, and with two small children, it’s virtually impossible. Sitting here in complete silence, it feels as though the rest of the Earth has slipped away, leaving nothing but a dialogue between my pumping blood and the sound of water trickling down the walls. Iceland is all about the water.
Flying into Keflavik airport, the sea beneath us was Orkney blue and choppy as hell. Clouds rolled before us in cirriform furrows, then slowly gave way to distant tabletop mountains, dripping with pink and gold. It looked like Val-bleedin’-halla. On our descent, we appeared to be landing on Mars. It is no surprise that Iceland has attracted sci-fi film-makers in the last few years: those volcanic plains look like the ancient, battle-scarred skin of a basilisk.
We arrived in Reykjavik just in time for the Iceland Airwaves festival, and headed out to dinner before catching some bands (hot tips: Baby In Vain and Nolo). Lækjarbrekka is a traditional Icelandic restaurant where JP managed to chow down puffin (“Pretty damned good”), minke whale (“Ten times better than the best steak”), wind-dried fish (“kinda chewy”) and fermented shark (“It smells of death and tastes like the world’s worst blue cheese, aged in a tramp’s pants, then marinated in a mixture of goat urine and Listerine”). He hopes one day to get the taste out of his mouth. I had lamb steak with langoustines, both meats tasting like they were in HD.
Charlotte prepares to take the plunge. Photograph: Bragi Þór Jósefsson
Reykjavik doesn’t feel like a city, more like a really big village. Buildings are rarely higher than two storeys, allowing landmarks and those incredible tabletops to be visible from almost everywhere. Despite there being a major international festival in town, at no point did it feel rammed with tourists. There is a serenity and calm that runs through its streets. Oskar told us that McDonald’s had set up restaurants across Iceland, but nobody went to them, so they upped and left. There is no Tesco or Walmart. In fact, the only recognisable brand name on what few billboards there were was Coca-Cola with its “Get your mate’s/boyfriend’s/dog’s name on a bottle” promotion, except all those names had “Đ”s or “Æ”s in them. We stayed at the Grand hotel, which was perfectly comfortable, but a tad corporate for my taste.
After a couple of days hipstering it up at Airwaves, we felt ready to leave town and truly disconnect from modern life. The road was totally empty as we drove away from Reykjavik, the landscape ghostly. There is a certain kind of light in Iceland that I have never experienced anywhere else. It’s as though twilight is about to descend. It felt magical.
We were heading east to the Silfra fissure in the Thingvellir national park, where we were going to go diving (temperature -2C), though first we had to stuff our chilly limbs into blubber suits, and then into dry suits. The end result was that I looked like a smooshed-up cabbage patch doll. The fissure is a popular diving site because you are literally swimming between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It’s like an upturned derelict cathedral, devoid of life, save for the mossy plants. You feel as though you’re drifting towards the centre of the Earth. This was some serious Jules Verne shit. The water was crystal-clear and drinkable, so it was basically like swimming in Evian. You could feel the cold, but it was totally bearable. After 40 minutes we emerged, and were then offered the chance to cliff-jump back in. I had no stomach for a 30ft drop, but there was no stopping JP, whose one regret was that he didn’t jump twice. We got back out of our suits, bone-dry, and headed off to Geysir in southwestern Iceland.
Scuba-diving (in sub-zero temperatures) in the Thingvellir national park. Photograph: Bragi Þór Jósefsson
Geysir, or the GG (Great Geysir as it’s sometimes known), is no longer erupting. He has too much weight above him, according to Oskar. Oskar called all mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, caves and geysers “he”, and the sun, sea and plants “she”, so from now on so will I. Right next to Geysir is the geyser Strokkur (meaning butter churn). Every five to 10 minutes, the boiling sulphurous waters of Strokkur will start to rise into a huge bullfrog bubble, and then proceed to erupt a good 20ft into the air.
There were plenty of tourists present while we were there, but unlike the UK, where there would have been health-and-safety protocols everywhere, there was just a rather ancient-looking donation box to which everyone contributed.
A mile down the road is what Oskar called a service station, and while you couldn’t get a £5 scotch egg or a 50 Shades Of Grey knock-off, you could buy a cheap, refillable bowl of what was worryingly called “meat soup”, but turned out to be an awesome lamb stew that nicely combated the cold. A couple of bowls each and we were ready to take off again. Oskar suggested we drive off-road a bit, which sounded cool, so we ventured out to Langjökull glacier and proceeded to drive up it, which is as hard as it sounds and doesn’t really work. Still giddy fun, though.
At the Hotel Rangá, we signed a “wake-up-call-if-the-Northern-Lights-kick-off” sheet and got our heads down early. We’d been allocated the Africa suite, which was brilliantly bonkers, furnished with two djembes (just in case you fancied an unscheduled drum circle), a very real zebra pelt on the wall and a book of Leni Riefenstahl‘s African photographs, besides a whole load of spears and the like.
‘We started to climb, each step getting windier and colder. And I started to wonder why I hadn’t plumped for the Maldives.’ Photograph: Bragi Þór Jósefsson
The bath water smelled of sulphur, and the morning chill meant it couldn’t get too hot, so instead we just layered up and, after a hearty breakfast, hit the road again. The first destination on the agenda was Sólheimajökull, where we would be hiking up the glacier. With crampons firmly attached and ice picks in hand, we started to climb, each step getting windier and colder. About 10 minutes in, I started to wonder why I hadn’t plumped for the Maldives. My self-pity was soon banished, though, as Oskar began to fill us in on the geography of our surroundings. Out to the east, Eyjafjallajökull (the culprit behind the 2010 eruption) sat like an indignant toad on the landscape. The ash from the eruption (which Oskar says has driven up tourism) lay thinly on the glacier, and I could carry on about that and how long it takes for moss to grow on it for another few paragraphs, but I fear that information is only really interesting when you’re standing there. Needless to say, you don’t need a PhD in geology to be awestruck by the raw power, the volatility, the majesty.
A storm was coming in from the east. What was yesterday a clear view to the horizon was now grout-grey and swirling. In Iceland, the weather can change like that (clicks fingers). The forecast is quite often entirely wrong. That is hardly surprising for an island that emerged, lonesome, between the north Atlantic and Arctic oceans, out of lava, a mere 16m years ago. It can only be imagined how hard life was for Icelanders before cars, the harnessing of geothermal energy, and the building of the greenhouses that are now scattered across the landscape. It is no wonder they had to live off haddock they hung out in the wind, and bits of poisonous killer shark they buried in the sand.
We came down off the glacier and after a bit of super Jeep on the beach (a derelict US army supply plane lies on it from the days when they used Iceland as a base), we turned away from the storm, and found our way to the most beautiful place we visited on our trip: órsmörk (literally Thor’s valley) is a frost-coated fairytale that in summer becomes an alpine vision of serenity. This is what the unique folklore is built upon. How could you not envision trolls and elves making a habitat in this wild and bewitching terrain? Outside órsmörk was an ice cave in glittering golden blue. It was psychedelic in the extreme.
Photograph: Bragi Þór Jósefsson
Back at Hotel Rangá, we were met by Frederik, the owner, an affable eccentric who had just returned from an awards ceremony in London where the hotel had won Best Sustainable Hotel in Europe, among a cluster of other prizes. The three of us spent a hilarious evening over a beautiful and boozy meal of reindeer carpaccio, white chocolate and champagne salmon, and more of those amazing langoustines, rounded off with shots of Birkir and Björk. They are the male and female names for birch, the only tree believed to be actually indigenous to Iceland. Birkir, a schnapps, was hefty and tasted of pine, whereas Björk, a liqueur, was lighter and sweeter, like sloe gin but with a distinctive earl grey flavour. We went to bed a little woozy.
It wouldn’t surprise me if there was no word for hangover in Icelandic. The air hits you in the morning and clears it all out. Downstairs, Frederik insisted we have a shot of cognac with him after breakfast (an Icelandic horse-riding tradition, apparently), and with that we bid a sad farewell to Hotel Rangá and turned back to the west in search of the lava tunnel. Mining helmets on, we descended until we reached the deepest part of the lava tube and it was lights-off time.
After that, we had one last stop. Between Reykjavik and Keflavik is the Blue Lagoon, the sole tourist trap on our journey. A bizarre, 4ft-deep crater, artificially pumped full of milky, blue water, it was mainly populated by Brits and Japanese wearing armbands – I didn’t manage to find out why. While you can buy a beer at the bar in the middle of the 38C water, and that water is high in minerals that are good for your skin, it was far too expensive for what it was (standard entry is around £30, and a beer about £5). Plus, after being spoilt by all of the genuine natural wonders that Iceland has to offer, the view of the powerw station, from which the water we were in was overflow, failed to impress.
Having experienced cutting ourselves off from the excesses of modern living, and having basked in nature’s glory, we said goodbye to our new friend Oskar at the airport and prepared to return to the regular stresses of 21st-century life. The only disappointment of the trip was missing out on seeing the aurora borealis. There is no saying when she might decide to come out, but the idea of sitting in a hot tub at midnight watching photons smashing apart on the Earth’s atmosphere is just one reason I’ll be going back to Iceland.
• The trip was provided by Iceland specialists Discover the World. A four-night tailor-made trip, including Icelandair return flights from London, Manchester or Glasgow, two nights at Grand Hotel Reykjavik (B&B), two nights at Hotel Rangá (B&B) and four days’ car hire, costs from £680pp. Excursions are extra and cost from £228pp for the Golden Circle and Silfra snorkelling experience (with pick-up from Reykjavik); £111pp for a south shore super Jeep adventure and £78pp for ice climbing