Explore the inside of volcanoes, clamber over glaciers, or simply soak in a thermal pool. These are the activities that will take you to the heart of this most unique of destinations
Icelandic folk have been bathing outdoors in thermal pools since Viking times. It would be remiss of you not to join in, either as a surreal way to spend a dark winter’s day, or to unwind after a strenuous hike.
The Blue Lagoon, with its vividly coloured water, is the most famous of Iceland’s pools – and its most commercialised. The Myvatn Nature Bath is popular too, set as it is amongst the Martian landscape of craters, fissures, lava beds and solfatara. (Be warned: the pool can be unbearably hot first thing in the morning.)
But really, there are thermal pools dotted all over the country. Ask a local for directions to their favourite. Chances are you’ll have it all to yourself.
Climb over it or under it. Or watch it crash into the sea. Ice puts on quite the show in Iceland.
Vatnajökull is an 8,100 sq km dome of ice (one twelfth of Iceland’s surface) up to 800m thick, protected in an eponymous national park. To explore the rumbling glaciers, hire a guide who’ll provide the gear and steer you safely through the jumble of crevasses and pinnacles.
Then, head for Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon jammed with thousands of giant icebergs calved from a glacier. Stroll along the moraines and gaze at the icebergs as they drift by and out to sea.
What about going inside a glacier? Europe's second-largest ice mass, the Langjökull glacier, has been out of bounds for generations – but is now home to Europe’s longest ice tunnel, 500 metres long and 30 metres below the surface.
The extreme dark of the Icelandic winter has a few perks. Between September and April, Iceland is one of the best places in the world to observe the northern lights. Apart from the ‘Big Smoke’ of Reykjavik, there is virtually no light pollution competing with the display in Iceland.
Iceland is also one of the most stylish places to observe the lights. Hotels dotted around the country are designed with aurora viewing – and your comfort – in mind. You can watch the lights as you eat or drink or kick back in an outdoor hot pool and leave your thermals packed away safely in your bag.
Your chances of seeing whales in Húsavík are amongst the best in the world. Whale-watching boats jostle for space in Húsavík’s snug harbour. Most days between May and September they chug out into Skjálfandi, a bay backed by brooding mountains.
Look out for for minke whales and white-beaked dolphins – humpbacks and giant blues sometimes turn up too. On land, allow time for the Whale Museum and a brew at one of the harbour’s bars and cafés.
Accessing Iceland’s wild Eastern Fjords has always required a long drive, internal flight or long sea voyage. But with new direct flights this untouched land of jagged mountains, mighty waterfalls and black sand beaches is now within reach.
Head there now and you will have Iceland’s new ‘Golden Circle’ pretty much to yourself. Picture postcard villages like Djúpivogur are a delight – complete with a pretty little harbour with colourful boats scattered like confetti beneath old wooden buildings.
Réttir is an Icelandic farming tradition, where sheep and horses that have spent the summer roaming free in the highlands are collected together by a long line of horsemen (which can extend more then 20 miles), and driven back down to the lowlands for winter. While gathering the animals is serious business for the farmers, it’s a day of fun for other Icelanders and visitors alike.
Spectators flock to see thousands of sheep and horses being herded down the mountain slopes. The first round-ups start in early September and continue across the country until early October. You can experience Réttir by walking or on horseback. The animal round up is always followed by a ‘round up’ of the locals for traditional songs and dancing.
Ever wondered what a volcano looks like on the inside? The only place in the world you can find out for yourself is Thrihnukagigur volcano. Descend through the top of the crater to the bottom of the volcano’s magma chamber where a world of vivid red, burnt orange and golden yellow rock awaits.
Thrihnukagigur lies in the Blafjoll mountains, just a 30 minutes drive from Reykjavik. Don’t worry! The volcano has not erupted for 4.000 years will never erupt again. This unique volcano tour is only available from May to September.
Landmannalaugar is famous for its spectacular hiking trails. This hiking hub is situated in the southern part of Iceland’s highlands, near the volcano Hekla. Hiking here allows visitors to take in the vivid multi-couloured mountains and vast lava fields in the area.
Laugavegur is a popular trail in Landmannalaugar. This trek is usually 4 days long, talking in the rugged glaciers, hot springs, epic waterfalls and panoramic view of the North Atlantic Ocean.
For a shorter trip, the two-hour hike through the Laugahraun lava field to Mt. Brennisteinsalda ('Sulphur Wave') and the 1 hour hike up Mt. Bláhnjúkur ('Blue Peak') are well worth the trek.
Although small, Icelandic horses are as tough and an uncompromising as the environment they live in. Since arriving with the Vikings they have developed in isolation, making riding them the ideal way to roam the wild landscapes of Iceland's interior.
Riding an Icelandic horse takes some getting used to – they have two extra gaits to other horses that you may have ridden. You may well get to try one of them, the tolt, a kind of running walk that will momentarily unsettle even experienced riders, but is incredibly comfortable once you relax into it. They’ll transport you back into the land of the Sagas, tolting or trotting across the wide and rugged terrain, towards giant mountains and thundering waterfalls.