Reykjavik Iceland: so cool it’s hot
Fancy a weekend break this winter? Instead of heading for the sun, jet off to Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik for a weekend in the snow. It’s guaranteed to leave you revitalised and fortified, says Melanie Whitehouse.
It’s midnight, the sky is inky black, the stars are twinkling and our jeep is parked by a borehole up a snowy track while we wait for the Northern Lights to appear. We’ve been in pursuit of the elusive Aurora Borealis for hours but it hasn’t exactly been hard work.
Earlier in the evening our 4X4 super truck with its hunky Icelandic driver made light work of the freezing rain as we headed for the village of Stokkseyri – a tiny place famed for its ghosts and trolls, 45 minutes’ drive from the capital city, Reykjavik, on the south coast of Iceland. Our destination was The Seashore restaurant and a mouth-watering lobster feast. A huge wok of lobster tails is put on every table along with salad and bread and everyone gets to eat as much lobster as they can fit under their ski pants. Wine, not lobster, was the luxury of this meal as prices for alcohol here are high. It was just as well that we had the lobster feast to fall back on because despite our guide’s best efforts the Northern Lights refused to show so we were quite pleased to leave the juddering borehole where sulphur scented steam spurted from the depths of the earth into the sky.
It’s amazing how much you can fit into an activity weekend in Iceland. My friend and I arrived on one of the few planes out of Heathrow on a foggy December Friday, arriving at our stylish hotel in the centre of Reykjavik by 6pm. The Hotel Odinsve cleverly combines a chic interior design with peaceful, old-world charm. What’s more, it’s in a quiet street in the heart of the city, making sights such as the majestic new cathedral, Hallgrimsskirkja, within easy walking distance. Do go up the bell tower – the views are 360 degrees and just incredible at sunset.
There are some seriously cool bars in Reykjavik. The minimalist Hotel 101 is the place to be seen and has lots of art books to peruse as you booze. In contrast, the nearby Lakjarbrekka restaurant is small, cosy and very traditional. Expect to feast on such specialties as flounder on lobster risotto, which comes with free melon soup with a Parmesan wafer. This restaurant is on the pricey side but there are cheaper options for meals if you’re on a budget, and there is also the usual range of fast food burger and pizza joints among them.
Saturday morning saw us hiking off our excesses of the night before. Walking over snow-covered lava rocks to the edge of the dormant volcano Burfell, then down into the silent crater, was tricky. Heavy walking boots use a whole different set of knee muscles to trainers and it was hard going, windy and icy cold, but as the sun rose at 11am and tinged the distant mountains and the bleak terrain pink, fatigue was banished and replaced with elation. We returned to look around the stylish city centre shops with rosy cheeks and a feeling of energy from the bracing, unpolluted air.
The next day we went snowmobiling in a blizzard with the sleet jabbing under our crash helmets like tiny needles. Dressed in one-piece fleece suits this was no fashion parade but it was the best fun. Snowmobiles are dirty, noisy and heavy to turn but they’re also totally exhilarating, and once you’ve got the hang of driving them in powdery snow, going off piste becomes addictive. Our snowmobiling excursion was part of a Golden Circle Super jeep trip, which covers some of the main sights within a two-hour drive of the capital. Our first stop was Pingvellir, the deserted and mysterious rift valley where the old Icelandic Parliament, the Althing, used to sit outdoors every summer. It is also where the earth has, literally, moved and the Euro Asian and North American tectonic plates meet.
The super jeep comes into its own on the ice-covered roads around Geysir. Our own word ‘geyser’ derives from the Icelandic ‘Geysir’, meaning ‘gusher’, the name given to the original and largest of the island’s spouting hot springs. Although this is quiet at the moment its little cousin Strokkur (meaning ‘churn’) was busy spouting a spectacular 98ft jet of water into the air every few minutes. Just down the road are the petrol blue waters of the Gulfoss waterfall, formed as the River Hvita carved a course following a fissure in the lava bed.
That night we’d been promised a Christmas Buffet in Siggi Hall, the Odinsve’s award-winning restaurant where we’d spent the last two mornings guzzling fabulous breakfasts of home-baked nutty bread, fresh prawns and chocolate pastries. Dinner was served on small plates – first marinated herring and salmon dishes, then pâtés and meatballs, then hot meats and vegetables. Although it seemed mean in the extreme to eat Rudolph just before Christmas, I have to admit that the reindeer steak with game sauce was divine. Sorry, Santa.
No trip to Reykjavik (which means ‘smoky bay’, the ‘smoke’ being the steam from the geothermic activity) is complete without a trip to the wonderful, other-worldly Blue Lagoon, which is – handily – on the way to the airport. The steaming, milky blue waters are quite surreal and the sticky silica mud is said to be an excellent curative for skin complaints.
However, the highlight for me was having an underwater massage with essential oils, carried out by trained masseurs as you lie on a buoyant mat with a hot, wet fleece over you. It’s guaranteed to turn those muscles strained by hiking and snowmobiling into a happy jelly and send you back to face a British winter energised and rejuvenated.
FACT FILE: Discover the World (Tel: 01737 218801; www.discover-the-world.co.uk) offer three-night Reykjavik city breaks staying at the 4-star Hotel Odinsve from £415 per person based on two sharing. Prices include return Icelandair flights from Heathrow or Glasgow, return airport transfers between Keflavik and Reykjavik, accommodation for three nights including breakfast and airport taxes and fuel surcharge. Extra nights are available from £43. Excursions: * Winter hiking (6-7 hours) £90pp. * Northern Lights and Lobster Feast £140pp. * Golden Circle by Super jeep £124 with optional snowmobiling at £60pp. * Blue Lagoon – various options are possible and prices start from £26pp.
Eurobreaks offer short trips to Reykjavik (Tel: 020 8780 7700; email@example.com)
Iceland Air (Tel: 0870 787 4020; wwwicelandair.co.uk)