Ismat Abidi explores the unexpected in Iceland, from a dormant volcano to the perfect lobster meal.
At the edge of nature's fury in Iceland
It's my first morning in Iceland and I've been walking over the uneven sponge-cake terrain of lava fields for about two kilometres. I'm just about to cross a two-metre crevice, yet this is by no means the biggest challenge. I'm en route to the peak of Thrihnukagigur, a 4,000-year-old dormant volcano 20km south of Reykjavik, and will soon be lowered over the rim into an intact magma chamber.
Yet curiosity conquers fear. The group is made up of eight adventurous visitors from the UK, Canada and Iceland ranging from 25 to 45, who had all heard about the new tour through press coverage or word of mouth. We finally reach base camp to be welcomed by the Inside The Volcano expedition safety team. Their enthusiasm for the trip is infectious.
"Fewer people, to date, have done this than been into space. This is the second week it's open to the public. Tom Cruise was here last week and we have scientists in the chamber experimenting right now!" With Wi-Fi at the base camp and active encouragement to share our experience and spread the word of this new tour via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, it's a 21st century expedition of 1988BC geology.
We're gradually lowered 120m into the magma chamber, having to push with our hands against the inner walls to keep the rickety platform centred. As we reach the bottom, the air is crisp and a cool 5°C, a stark contrast to the intense heat the chamber once held. Streams of charcoal black violently clash with deep purple, hot pink and tiger orange. Solidified magma formations cover the inner wall like a beautiful dark art installation. Keeping track of time is challenging when there is no sunset, a phenomenon usually enjoyed between mid-June and mid-July. The horizon dips momentarily before rising up again for the night.
I make full use of the day and embark on a midnight whale watching tour from Reykjavik's harbour via a small island seasonally inhabited by puffins. An hour into the voyage, some minke whales playfully raise their fins above the ocean's surface. Despite the lack of dramatic Free Willy leaps, there is something powerful about seeing these creatures out in the open ocean.
In a country with one of the lowest population densities in the world, with an average of just three people per square kilometre, two-thirds of the country's 300,000 population reside in Reykjavik, a mishmash of unusual Nordic architecture. Most buildings are walled with corrugated steel painted in deindustrialising bright colours. There is an evident quirky-bohemian culture generated by shop displays and student life. Room With A View is a furnished apartment block right on the city's main street, Laugavegur. The location is ideal for exploring the capital and contains modern apartments with up to four bedrooms, complete with a kitchen, balcony and helpful round-the-clock staff. The banking collapse of 2008 and weakening of the local currency means that Iceland's reputation as a particularly expensive destination is no longer applicable. The prices, on average, are similar to mainland European capitals.
It is 2am on a weeknight in Reykjavik but it feels like mid-afternoon. With runners and regular revellers on the streets, the only indication that it is past midnight is that the main shops are closed. Hlölla Bátar, an Icelandic institution of Subway-meets-McDonald's, is an ideal 2am snack (average Dh11-Dh18 per person). For a leisurely, sophisticated lunch, Nauthóll (www.nauthol.is) is a modern Nordic-European bistro offering a great view of the ocean, excellently prepared food and good portions.
Next I drive 50km north-east of Reykjavik to explore the a route commonly known as the "Golden Circle", a triple force of nature made up of a waterfall, an erupting geyser and a national park. ingvellir is a national park situated between fissures created by the European and North American tectonic plates tearing apart. The park has waterfalls, hiking routes and giant lakes, all contained within the dramatic sharp drops of the plate walls. Gulfoss is a spectacular double crevice waterfall in a nearby canyon. While not on the same scale as Niagara Falls, it is equally, if not more, dramatic. I make my way down some stairs towards the canyon where Gulfoss lies and a perfectly formed rainbow frames the loud gushing streams of water creating a powerful spectacle for the surrounding swarms of tourists and school geography trips. Although a day trip of the Golden Circle is possible, Hotel Geysir is a destination worth exploring with individual cabins (average price $170 per twin) and an outdoor geothermal pool open until late, which sources water directly from the famous Geysir. I pay a late-night visit to the great Geysir, leaping back as the 80°C water rapidly transforms from a bubbling steamy surface to an erupting jet of water shooting up into the sun-filled midnight sky.
Wanting to escape the tourist trail, I rent a car with a few friends and find this the most cost-efficient and flexible way to explore further afield at my own pace. The country's main Ring Road 1, 1,339km long, circles the island in two lanes, almost perfectly constructed for a road trip. I drive across a unique topographical mix of lava fields, glaciers, lavender pastures and volcanoes with the occasional rainstorm, blinding sunshine, glacial reflection and dark clouds. Among all this, we accidentally come across Seljalandsfoss, a waterfall visible from the ring road with fierce 40-metre drop and a walking path directly behind the fall. We finally reach our halfway point for the day, Reynisfjara, a striking black pebble and black volcanic sand beach with an ideal view of the stand-alone iconic black lava arch in the neighbouring Dyrholaey. This is the southernmost point of Iceland. It is easy to lose track of time here. The view refuses to get dull and with no sense of time, it is a difficult task tearing ourselves away.
Driving through what feels like autumn and winter, the sunshine returns in full force. We drive east for five hours along the south coast ring road to arrive at Skaftafell National Park and head straight to one of the most famous sights in Iceland - Jökulsárlón lagoon, fame that has been increased by its use in the Tomb Raider and James Bond films. Large boats carrying around 200 people provide views from a distance but for a more thrilling and intimate experience, I opt for Zodiac Tours. Started in 2011, Zodiac uses smaller boats carrying up to 10 people, which manoeuvre around the lagoon's constantly reforming icebergs at a close range. The subzero wind chill lashes against my face and fingers as we head out into the lagoon. I forget about the uncomfortable windchill factor when I see an iceberg flip over in front of me, revealing fresh, crystal clear, but age-old ice. Gloves are essential as we touch freshly flipped icebergs. I hear a loud thundering crash and watch a glacier in front of us release part of its wall into the lagoon.
We head next to Fjallsarlon. We access the lagoon via a small red sign and dirt road not far from Jökulsárlón and spend two hours admiring the untouched lagoons with no boats in sight, the midnight sun rising and glimmering reflections of glaciers on the lagoon's surface.
My final adventure was a morning glacier hike on Falljokull, the biggest glacier outside the polar regions, located at the southern tip of Skaftafell National Park. Armed with crampons, an ice axe and a guide occasionally having to axe a new trail for our group of 10, I gradually absorb the close-up view of deep blue ice cauldrons, icefalls and fresh crevices. The guide reminds me that the glacier moves back about 30 metres a year, instantly increasing my appreciation for the experience.
I'm on the quest for the perfect lobster meal on my way back to Reykjavik and have been recommended Red House (Rauda Hausid) by a local as an authentic Iceland lobster institution. We find Red House in the small town of Eyrarbakki, 45 minutes outside Reykjavik, which is an easy place to miss. Established in 1919, the setting is like a grandmother's living room and the quality lives up to expectation (average price per person $27 [Dh99] www.raudahusid.is) but bear in mind, like most restaurants in the country, Red House closes at 9pm.
I wake up early on Sunday for a Reykjavik bike tour. Set up by a husband and wife team, the company uses local guides who understand the history of the city and fill the tour with engaging anecdotes. Edda is a friend of the founders and an excellent guide (www.icelandbike.com $36 [Dh132] per person for classic tour). In hindsight, the bike tour would be one of the first things I would do in Reykjavik for the orientation and information it provides.
With just a few hours left of a five-night trip, we stop at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal pool situated en route to the main international airport, with facilities catered specifically for pre- or post-flight tourists. A huge tourist attraction is busy by nature, but once I'm in the 40°C lagoon water, I forget about the crowds. I feel like I'm in an interactive spa, with silicone and algae along the banks you're encouraged to rub on your face for glowing skin. This is an ideal end to everyone's trip and the natural minerals seem to work, but ensure that the aimless hours you can easily spend in the lagoon don't make you miss your flight.