Travel review: Northern Iceland

Northern Lights reflected on Lake Myvatn, Iceland. PIC: PA

Northern Lights reflected on Lake Myvatn, Iceland. PIC: PA

0
Have your say

Wild nature baths, tales of trolls and some of the best opportunities to see the Northern Lights are just some of the things waiting to entice you in this permanent winter wonderland.

Now darkness has engulfed the gnarly volcanic landscape, it’s hard to determine where land ends and the sky begins.

Balls of mist roll like tumbleweed around crater rims, whipped up by howling winds charging at 15 metres per second. Struggling to hold my balance, I almost have to crawl on my hands and knees. The fact I’m dressed only in a bikini doesn’t really help matters.

It might sound like insanity, but I’ve come to this remote, sparsely-populated region of northern Iceland to go swimming.

A natural lagoon with 40 degree water heated by geothermal energy, the Myvatn Nature Baths opened to the public in 2004.

Less commercial than the Blue Lagoon in the south of the island - now replete with floating bars, spa robes and mud-pack dispensers - this mineral-rich hot spring offers a much simpler and wilder alternative.

In fact, it’s one of many bathing spots in this extension of the Mid-Atlantic ridge - some in caves, others in chasms, and some so hot you could boil an egg in them.

Reached by a short flight from Reykjavik to Iceland’s second city Akureyri, this wild and rugged region is attracting an increasing number of tourists, lured by other-planetary scenery, geological phenomena and the promise of being one of the best places in Iceland the see the Northern Lights.

Situated in a valley at the end of Iceland’s longest fjord, the 70km Eyjafjorour, Akureyri has been inhabited since the first settlers came to Iceland. Yet the 18,000-resident town, famous for being one of the few places in Iceland with plentiful vegetation, only officially celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2012.

“This is a town of trees,” says my guide Siggi, whose family have lived in this area since the 17th century. “There are trees in every backyard.”

As we drive into the mountains, past thundering waterfalls and 10,000-year-old steppes carved out by glaciers during the Ice Age, it becomes clear space is not in short supply here.

“Some people even own volcanoes,” says Siggi, a former farmer with a wry sense of humour, who speaks in gruff Norse tones through a beard of wiry ginger hair. Dressed in a knitted Nordic jumper, he’s the exemplary Icelander. “My family have two mountains,” he adds.

Siggi takes me to his family farm, and proudly points out a 100-year-old barn thatched with turf, which is now protected by the Museum of Iceland.

There are no locks on the doors - with virtually no crime, there’s no need - and Siggi always leaves his car keys in the ignition, just in case his neighbour needs to borrow the vehicle.

Agriculture was once the main industry in this area, but in the last 1,100 years, 50% of vegetation and 96% of tree cover has been lost, and soil erosion is a serious problem. “Farming is now just a hobby,” laments Siggi.

Most locals have since turned to tourism to make money. One restaurant, Vogafjos, has even cleverly combined the two; diners can eat in the company of dairy cows, milked behind a glass wall to make cheeses and yoghurts served on the menu.

People also have plenty of other natural resources to draw upon - originating from far deeper underground.

“Geothermal water is our oil,” Siggi tells me as we drive towards the 1,000m diameter ash crater Hverfell, the largest in Iceland.

More than 90 per cent of houses are heated purely by geothermal water; power stations have successfully harnessed the energy - and even the local sweet rye bread is cooked by lowering a bucket filled with dough into the ground and leaving it for 24 hours.

As we approach the active Krafla caldera, which last erupted in 1984, wisps of smoke rise from bore holes in the surrounding lava fields. Overhead, lenticular clouds start to form, whipped up like spoonfuls of Angel Delight.

The stomach-wrenching smell of sulphur indicates we’ve arrived at the Hverir boiling mud pots, where cow pat-shaped mounds of molten clay spit, spew and bubble.

The smell may be unpleasant but it would be worse if you could smell nothing, Siggi tells me, with a macabre smile.

“In concentrated forms, dihydrogen sulphide is as poisonous as cyanide, and one of the first things it kills off is your olfactory nerves.”

The hot clouds of steam rising from the ground actually provide welcome relief as temperatures drop, even though I tease Siggi that his knitted Nordic jumper will now smell of rotten eggs.

By now, the sun has almost set, leaving a band of pink and purple hugging the sky. We’re witnessing the Belt of Venus, a common phenomenon at higher latitudes during winter, when the sun hangs low in the sky and the air is filled with ice crystals.

But our adventures don’t end with nightfall.

WOW Air (www.wowair.co.uk; 0118 321 8384) flies to Reykjavik from London Gatwick from £74 one way.

210317 Gary Verity  from Welcome to Yorkshire with Judith Blake Leader of Leeds City Council  and  two of the Kaiser Chiefs  Peanut (left) and Simon Rix  at the Y17  conference at York Theatre Royal  yesterday(tues)

Big plans for year ahead are revealed