Iceland puts the wild in wilderness. It’s an austere land riddled with suppurating mud pits, sulphurous steam vents and lava flows that resemble burnt school dinners. Waterfalls bloated with glacial silt retch into canyons, while fully grown trees cower inches above ground to shelter from scything Arctic winds.
It’s hardly your typical image of a family holiday destination – and yet Iceland, for all its austerity, is a superb place for kids who have a sense of adventure.
Nowhere is Iceland’s volatile character more evident than near Lake Myvatn in the north. At Hverarönd, for example, kids will be captivated by (and no doubt keen to impersonate) the belching, foul-smelling mud pits, while at Krafla they can scurry across lava fields contorted into swirls, coils and honeycombs. At Dimmuborgir, meanwhile, a walking trail probes a bizarre maze of tortured basalt sculptured into spires, caves, arches and a disconcerting number of trolls.
Around 80% of Icelanders admit to believing in the so-called ‘Hidden People’. In 2006, inexplicable machinery failure interrupted an extension project at the Blue Lagoon – deemed to be the work of local elves whose homes had been disturbed. Staff lit 12 candles to appease the little folk and avoid further mishaps.Your best chance of spotting an elf is at Hafnarfjörthur, near Reykjavík. Also look out for dwarfs (toddler-sized and moody), light-fairies (think Tinkerbell) and trolls (solitary and grumpy).
Located on the road between the airport and Reykjavík, the Blue Lagoon is about as weird and wonderful as swimming pools get. Surrounded by a barren lava landscape, the milky-blue waters of this open-air pool steam away at 37-39°C. Wading into the waist-deep water your toes squidge into a layer of silica sludge that you can slap on your face for a therapeutic mud mask, or scoop up in handfuls for an all-out mud fight.
Another guaranteed hit with the kids is the Golden Circle, a geologically supercharged tour that visits Thingvellir (a Unesco World Heritage site of lava flows and deep ravines), Geysir (a hotspot of geothermal vents, including the Stokkur geyser which erupts 35m into the air every ten minutes) and Gullfoss (a beautiful 32m-high waterfall).
You can also go horseriding at Hafnarfjörthur, (a ten-minute drive from Reykjavík) where the sure-footed Icelandic ponies are ideal for beginners, or whitewater rafting on the Hvítá River, where the rapids are gentle to moderate. Whalewatching trips are available from March to October. You’re likely to spot white-beaked dolphins and minke whales. Sightings of humpback whales and orcas require a bit more luck. And as for blue whales – they can be as fickle as elves.William Gray is the author of Travel with Kids – the definitive global guide to family travel (Footprint)
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