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Adventures In The Arctic Circle: Is It Possible To Explore Iceland In 48 Hours?

Christobel Hastings takes a whistlestop tour around the northerly island to explore waterfalls, lagoons and steaming geysers

“The chaos of the primeval world, deluged by lava, mud, cinders…” So goes the testimony of Samuel Kneeland, a Victorian natural scientist when he visited Iceland in 1876.

For a cold-weather adverse Brit, Reykjavik was not an obvious choice for a four-day break.

But, inspired by a burst of wanderlust, coupled with reports that Reykjavik was becoming something of a cultural hotspot, we booked tickets for an early November getaway and braced ourselves for chillier climes.

Photo: Christobel Hastings

A capital city that many consider a small town in size, choosing what to do in Reykjavik should have been straightforward. Not so.

Every backstreet, country lane and fishing village in Iceland is packed with culture, culinary delights and historic sites – and that’s without venturing into the snow-topped mountains, waterfalls and moss-covered lava fields of the national parks.

Upon arrival at Keflavik airport, we were greeted by freezing rain. A northerly wind whipping around our coat-tails, and air so pure it smelt like it had been filtered.

We had come prepared and I was glad for it: thermals, cashmere jumpers and knee length fur-lined parkas became wholly necessary essentials from the moment we stepped off the plane.

We had come, knowingly, and expectantly, out of season. More than 90 per cent of Iceland’s tourists visit during summertime; something that perplexes Icelandic locals, who believe some of the best skies and scenery are to be found during the winter.

Photo: Christobel Hastings

The Icelanders channel a great mix of efficiency and carefree nonchalance that completely puts you at ease.

Lost your shuttle transfer? Not to worry. Forgotten to book your Golden Circle tour? Hop on board the bus.

Engaging in conversation, whether to ask directions or determine the best cafe is also a total pleasure, thanks to the Icelanders charm.

Icelandic locals believe some of the best skies and scenery are to be found during winter

Having suitably mummified ourselves in the warm capsule of the hotel, we set off to Austurvöllur for our walking tour, the square opposite parliament. Traditionally locals congregated here to bang pots and pans when they were unhappy with government policy.

The tour, conducted by a friendly and knowledgeable local history graduate Marteinn, helped us get acquainted with the major landmarks in the city, as well as lesser known statues, sculptures and curiosities tucked away from prying eyes.

Photo: Stock

Iceland is a country that continually loops back to the memory of its forefathers; a passion for pattern and tradition runs deep in the national character.

Family, fishing and folk songs are interwoven in Icelandic discourse, as was evident from Marteinn’s Viking-proud stories of notable events made throughout Reykjavik’s history.

It’s a great introduction to both the city and Icelandic culture, where we learned about the people’s fascination with the Huldufólk; the “hidden people”, or elves to you and I; the establishment of the first Parliament and the election of the first female head of state, and the two pillars that stand smoking gently in the square downtown which gave Reykjavik its namesake ‘Smoky Bay’.

In one of our first brushes with Icelandic humour, Marteinn also took time to point out a prison by the waterfront, where the majority of Icelandic bankers sit incarcerated after being charged responsible for the 2008 financial collapse.

Photo: Stock

We were lured to Reykjavik by the hope of catching the elusive Northern lights at play in the night skies.

That Saturday evening, we bundled up, ski gloves and flasks of tea at the ready, to board a Reykjavik Excursions bus tour.

As our guide explained, seeing the lights hinges delicately on the weather conditions, which continually flit between rain and cloud, mortal enemies to the so-called ‘electricity in the sky’.

It’s a gamble even boarding the bus, but one which we were excited to take as we headed out of town at 9pm for the otherworldly wilderness, where we could be assured of waiting uninterrupted by town lights.

The skies remained stubbornly black until the greenish patches of lights suddenly emerged up above

For the most part, the skies remained stubbornly pitch black. But the great thing about the tour is that the guides are highly knowledgeable about hunting the lights.We were constantly leaping on and off the bus at the cry of our guide when she caught wind of sightings nearby.

After one impromptu stop-off, the greenish patches of lights suddenly emerged up above. These weren’t brightly coloured, but muted, misty streaks of light that shift before your eyes.

For a few moments on that windswept, volcanic plain, I felt privileged to have been granted a glimpse of the magical lights.

We didn’t return home until 1am. We rose sleepily in the darkness the next morning, breakfasted, and were picked up by our tour guide, Baldwin, for our Golden Circle tour.

Photo: Christobel Hastings

The Golden Circle tour is the most well-trodden of all Iceland’s attractions, where visitors flock to observe the three jewels in the Icelandic crown; Thingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the Geysir hot spring region.

The Thingvellir valley is the birthplace of the Icelandic nation, where the first parliament, Althingi, was created in 930 AD, the oldest existing parliament in the world.

It’s a spot where visitors can appreciate the forces shaping our planet as the tectonic plates spread apart creating new crust.

The views from different vantage points on the mountainside are awe-inspiring; silvery-green moss coating vast lava plains, clear blue fjords and reddish-brown grasses framing each twist and turn.

As we crossed the last bridge at 10.30am, the sun finally rose over the bluish mountains, bathing the landscape in brilliantly golden light.

Photo: Christobel Hastings

We drove towards the mountains where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates had parted ways, which, as Baldwin informed us, had received a fresh dusting of snow within the last few days.

It was here that Baldwin recalled his very own Icelandic saga. In the winter of 1936, the coldest winter since records began, his great grandfather decided to tow his lakeside cabin across the 75cm frozen ice to the east side of the lake.

We looked out across the fir-tree lined water and imagined an intrepid young man capitalising on the extreme weather conditions for a house-move, and marvelled at the Icelanders pluck.

Gullfoss is Europe’s largest, and arguably prettiest waterfall

Next, to the Gullfoss Waterfall, which literally translates as “Golden Falls”. Located in the River Hvítá, which originates from Hvítárvatn on the southeast side of the glacier of Langjokull, Gullfoss is Europe’s largest, and arguably prettiest waterfall.

Only a handful of fellow travellers were alongside us at the water’s edge that morning, making our descent down the hillside a serene one.

The waterfall is a remarkable sight to behold; jagged basalt cliffs covered by water that froths angrily before falling in silvery sheaths over the precipice.

Onlookers stand like pinpricks next to the thundering waterfall, coated in the white spray that surrounds Gullfoss and falls dewily upon your skin.

Photo: Christobel Hastings

The day was drawing on, so we headed to the Haukadalur geothermal region, where the Geysir hot spring and its “younger brother” Strokkur sit 50 metres apart.

For a moment I believed I was walking amid a prehistoric world, so utterly unmarked by human civilisation is the sub-Arctic wilderness.

The Great Geysir very rarely spouts now, but his neighbour Strokkur was enjoying a period of activity when we arrived, erupting roughly every five minutes to project hot water and stream 100 feet into the air.

After four minutes of waiting at the geyser’s edge, Strokkur exploded; a swelling of white foam that pulsed like a giant blister, before shooting skyward to shrieks of delight from onlookers.

Photo: Stock

Our last day in Reykjavik was spent cleansing and exfoliating ourselves with natural white clay in the thermal waters of the Blue Lagoon.

The lagoon has become highly commercialised in recent times. You’ll see plenty of ‘lads on tour’ and hen parties (not least public PDA), but fortunately the lagoon is large enough that you can easily find a hot patch to sit undisturbed.

Back in Reykjavik, we speed-walked through the blocks downtown to the Hallgrímskirkja Church, a famous landmark sitting at the top of Skólavörðustígur which can be seen from almost every corner of Reykjavik.

The white-concrete church is a minimalistic, Lutheran vision. We raced to the top to catch a stunning 360 degree panoramic of the city. It was just before closing time.

We gazed out at miles of colourful corrugated steel houses, glassy lakes and snow-topped mountain ranges, and watched the sun finally sink beyond the horizon as the church bell clanged five o’clock above our heads.

Photo: Christobel Hastings

Our trip to Iceland wasn’t complete without an evening stroll through Reykjavik. One of my favourite things of our trip was peeping into people’s homes and watching the cosy scenes within: meals being served, windowsills decorated with glass elves, open log fires crackling.

In one shop window, a silversmith worked late into the evening; in a nearby noodle kitchen, the night was young for the trendy twenty-somethings who sat behind steaming bowls of soup.

We looked back at the Hallgrimskirkja Church, which now stood glowing the darkness. That we were the only two inhabitants in the tower that evening felt like a rather special moment; and solidified my belief that although Reykjavik may be experiencing a popularity boost, the city will always reveal magical, pre-tourist moments for those who seek them.

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