Imagine me standing in the middle of the Arctic Circle in mid-winter in just my swimming trunks and with my face covered in white mud.
Suicidal? No! Smiling? Yes!
I’m not on some crazy endurance test, but soaking in the incredible atmosphere and weird luna-landscape of the world’s most famous luxury spa – the Blue Lagoon.
It’s just one of the wonderfully weird must-sees on any tour of Iceland (just three hours flight-time from London and only five from New York).
And because the sapphire waters of the lagoon are just a short bus ride from Reykjavik’s main airport, they are a first or last experience in the country for most.
Tourists and locals alike come to bathe in the geo-thermally heated pool. Whether there’s snow on the ground or the summer sun beating down (revealing Iceland’s least known and spoken about magical green covering), you’ll be beautifully warm once in the lagoon and the mineral-rich waters really do condition and tone your skin.
Once wet you smear your face with the white-silica mud, provided at the pool’s edge, to maximize the exfoliating effect. And you should make the most of the experience by lounging in the steam cave and taking a turn under the hot waterfall that gives you a powerful shoulder massage.
That same natural geothermal energy which heats up the lagoon provides hot water to Iceland’s homes and even acts as under-floor heating for some of the pavements so they don’t ice up.
The Icelanders are a hardy bunch, perfectly prepared for harsh conditions. Our arrival in a blizzard wasn’t any problem for our pilot – he touched down apparently oblivious to the snow-clad condition of the runway. And the bus driver who took us to the capital through the snowstorm acted like he was on a casual Sunday afternoon drive.
Most remarkably of all the capital, Reykjavik, is cosy and welcoming, not bleak. It’s an enjoyable city to explore. The main shopping area is full of cool boutiques and chic bars but it’s all on a human scale, more like a large village.
Popular belief has it that huge cosmopolitan cities are more gay-friendly while smaller, isolated communities are more bigoted. Iceland shows that stereotype is garbage. Here, in Reykjavik, at the edge of the earth, the rainbow flag flutters proudly over the Queer Centre. Inside you can find out about the National Queer Organisation and how it has won extensive rights for LGBT islanders.
The country’s small scale actually helps the campaigners. If the organization’s leaders wants to discuss something with a minister or even the prime minister, they just make an appointment and pop down the street to see them. Because you can meet all the politicians face-to-face, it’s easier to reason with them, I was told.
Icelanders are excellently educated and tolerant – violence is very rare. But a small community is not all good news; gay locals jokingly admit that if you make a drunken idiot of yourself in one of the gay bars, everyone knows of your shame by the next day.
Of course that’s not a problem for tourists who can always hop on the Iceland Express service back home and leave their embarrassment behind them.
Next morning we were picked up for a Golden Circle tour. Bus trips may not be your usual first choice but all tourists do them here as the most practical way to see the sites and the major operators will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel.
Even in our heavy walking boots we slid around on the thick ice as we stared in wonder at the Gullfoss, or golden waterfall. It drops 32 meters in a spectacular double-cascade, sending up a shower of spray and shooting out rainbows before the water disappears down a narrow ravine. Even the slippery ice adds to the effect, twinkling in the sunlight. And to think it would have been turned into a hydroelectric scheme if the locals hadn’t saved it!
Not far away is the country’s other most-visited natural wonder, the Geysir (actually pronounced GAY-zeer), the original hot-water spout that lent its name to all those discovered after it. It now rarely erupts because idiot tourists threw rocks into it in the 1950s and when it does, the water doesn’t spurt up as far as it used to.
But just next to it is the world’s most reliable geyser, Strokkur. We were so wowed when we first saw the plume of water shoot 20 meters into the air that we missed the opportunity to take a photo. No problem, we just waited five minutes and it went off again. And another time six minutes later. While you are waiting, you can look around at the steaming fumaroles, bubbling pots and colourful springs that surround it.
And it’s not just natural wonders that are worth visiting. Our tour took us to the ancient seat of the Icelandic bishops to learn about their fascinating, and sometimes tragic history and to the wind-swept hill where the country’s parliament used to meet.
The Althingi is the oldest parliamentary institution in the world. And while it is now in a nice building in the center of Reykjavik it originally started in 930AD out in the open. (It’s not all cheery though. In one corner is an ice-cold pool where women convicted of serious crimes would once have been tied up in a sack and drowned.)
Europe’s most sparsely populated country is a land of friendly welcomes, a forward-looking society and unparalleled natural wonders: spouting geysers, active volcanoes, tumbling waterfalls, towering mountains, vast lava plains fjords, glaciers and highlands and magical lakes. What’s more there is a constant buzz about Iceland’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender scene.
From mid-May to mid-July, Reykjavik is a city that never sleeps – you can enjoy daylight 24-seven and turn it into a party capital.
But whenever you go there, you definitely need to go – and return. In my case I still want to see the Northern Lights, visit a puffin colony, go whale watching, do an all daylight bar-crawl from midnight to 5am and take a stroll on one of the glaciers. I know there will be a warm welcome.
- 101 Hotel: A a boutique hotel in the heart of the city center. The luxurious rooms are the perfect place to unwind. Warm up in the big walk in showers or bath tub – there are Blue Lagoon spa products available for extra pampering if you haven’t had enough already.
- Radisson Blu 1919: A four-star hotel from the trusted brand of Radisson Blu. Perfectly located and makes a great base for exploring the city of Reykjavik and the rest of Iceland.
- Apotek Hotel: Centrally located, this is a quality hotel that puts you right in the heart of the action in Reykjavik.
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