I was a little apprehensive about going to Iceland for the first time in spring. It must surely look its most majestic in winter, covered in snow. And I’ve heard it’s lovely in summer, when the wildflowers are out and everything is green. But spring is the great melt, and I assumed it would just be muddy.
It wasn’t. Snow still clung to the craggy mountain tops off in the distance but elsewhere it was extraordinarily colourful: jet black ground, gold mossy boulders and bright blue icebergs.
It was a three-day flyby visit consisting of a quick drop-in on Reykjavik and a drive down its east coast to the tip of the south, followed by a drive back up again and a low-flying plane tour of its west. Here are the some of the observations I picked up about this very beautiful, very interesting country…
1. It’s the 18th largest island in the world but is also Europe’s most sparsely populated country. Ergo, it feels very empty, which is a good thing if you’re not a huge fan of other humans.
2. While Iceland has a fair few looming volcanoes, most of it (nearly 70%) is tundra, which is to say flat, treeless expanse. I’ve never seen so much nothingness in every direction.
3. It runs almost entirely on renewable energy, mostly geothermal (65%) and hydropower (25%). Not because they’ve tried really, really hard to do away with fossil fuels, but just because they never particularly needed them in the first place, thanks to the nature of the land. Steam and hot water bursts naturally from its many crevices as if from a giant cauldron below, enough of it to power their homes – the relatively few they have.
4. For this reason, the Icelandic can bake bread in the earth. Really. They just wrap the dough up in foil and bury it for a bit.
5. Meteorologically speaking, Iceland is a drama queen. Being so close to the Arctic circle, the winters are dark, with only a few hours of dim sunlight a day, and during summer, conversely, it never gets dark.
6. The climate, too, is tempestuous and vastly unpredictable. It’s why so few trees survive. Officially, Iceland is the second windiest place on the planet (Antarctica is the first), with speeds that reach more than 60mph. That’s enough to break a car door.
7. Don’t ask me why, but the water is ludicrously reflective. The land’s scattered pools work like mirror panes and the streams that slice down from the mountains look like silver veins of mercury.
8. In its teeny capital of Reykjavik, the buildings somewhat resemble a cluster of Monopoly houses, all with brightly coloured roofs. I don’t know why they’re designed this way, but it looks nice from the plane as you come in to land.
9. In the countryside, little moss-topped cabins where the antisocial folk live are dotted around at random, dug into the slopes and half swallowed by hills.
10. Game of Thrones is famously filmed here. My favourite location was probably Black Sand Beach. The sand is the texture of fine (black) sugar and the waves are furious and frothy white.
Basalt stacks form the cavernous cliffs, so geometric in shape they appear to have been machine-carved, and the only thing that isn’t black or white is the gold moss that clings to their tops. Throw in some fog and some howling wind and you can see why it makes such a commanding film spot.
11. Iceland’s waterfalls are plentiful and splendid. Yes, you can take nice photos of them but no, you can’t possibly capture their scale. For that, you must stand at the foot of them and look up. Arrogant as humans tend to inherently be, there’s also something very rewarding about feeling so small.
12. The rumours are true, it’s incredibly expensive in Iceland, in part because almost everything (except fish and ice) has to be imported. I don’t think this is a bad thing in the slightest. Better for somewhere to be a hard-earned treat than an easily-affordable stag party destination.
13. There’s a new hotel in the south, and I’d highly recommend it: The Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. Basically a set of shiny black cubes dropped into the middle of nowhere, with toasty wood interiors, amber-hued globular lamps and views over nothing for miles.
14. I didn’t see any dogs or cats, but plenty of wild Icelandic horses, and lots of geese and sea birds.
15. One of Iceland’s chain stores has the most peculiar logo I have ever seen. What is this expression supposed to represent? Who approved this final draft?
I didn’t go Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon – I’ve heard these days that it’s more a soup of tourists than anything resembling a relaxing natural marvel. Nor did I visit any geysers. At some stage though, I plan to return and drive myself around the singular road that loops Iceland’s entire perimeter.
Next? Lisbon, where I’ll be taking photos from the sidecar of a vintage motorcycle…