I always thought it couldn’t snow on the beach. I mean, gritting trucks layer streets with salt and sand mix to melt snow and ice, and the beach is made of, well, salt and sand.
You see my logic, right?
But Iceland clearly doesn’t, because I’m standing on the Reynisfjara black sand beach, around an hour and 40 minutes south of Reykjavik, and it’s snowing – hard. Fluffy white clumps are blowing into my face and settling on the ground, leaving the famous volcanic sands with a curious ‘salt-and-pepper’ effect.
‘Don’t turn your back on the sea,’ our tour guide, Svanbjörg, warns us in her friendly Icelandic lilt, where every sentence turns upwards like an unanswered question. ‘The water is powerful and a sneaker wave can come up and surprise you; it can be dangerous.’
Looking out at the icy Atlantic, it’s clear she wasn’t exaggerating. The waves are unrelenting, swelling to intimidating heights before smashing angrily on the shore. But it’s exactly this wild quality that makes Iceland so endlessly fascinating.
Even the bitter cold – normally my nemesis – can’t detract from this moment of pure, raw, majestic natural beauty.
But that kinds sums up my experience solo travelling to Iceland. An island pushed up by tectonic activity around 24 million years ago, Iceland has 33 active volcanoes, including the infamous (but unpronounceable) Eyjafjallajökull. Also located on the south shore, this fiery mountain caused havoc in 2010 when it erupted and the resulting ash cloud grounded nearly 100,000 flights all over Europe.
When the volcano erupted and the lava and hot gasses collided with the ice and snow of the surrounding glacier there were tremendous explosions, our tour guide tells us, and the ash cloud was so thick the day turned to night. The particles inside became so super charged with static electricity, that lightning bolts could be seen discharging within the black billows of smoke and rock fragments.
After a short walk past a frozen lagoon, we reach the mouth of the magnificent Sólheimajökull glacier, which is the tail end of the larger Mýrdalsjökull icecap and passes between not one, but two volcanoes – Eyjafjallajökull and Katla.
Sadly, every day there’s less of the glacier to see, as it’s shrinking more than 200 feet a year.
However, climate change isn’t the only threat to this slow-moving river of frozen snow and ice. When Eyjafjallajökull erupted it melted the glacier ice, completely flooding the surrounding plains. Initially disastrous for the local grain farmers, the land subsequently became super fertile from the rich minerals that had been left behind; an unexpected eruption bonus – and it wasn’t the only one.
So massive was the disruption to European travellers, Icelanders feared their island would be forever associated with that disappointment, and hated for it. But, curiously, the opposite was true. ‘The eruption actually put us on the map,’ Svanbjörg reveals.
Tourism has boomed since then, rising from around 500,000 in 2010, to over 2 million in 2017 (rather impressive, when you consider the entire population is just 350,000), and now makes up 10 percent of the country’s economy.
Yes, it means some spots are full of selfie-stick wielding tourists battling for pole position, but the crowds don’t (yet) detract from the unique beauty of this down-to-earth island. Even in the capital of Reykjavik, you still get that ‘sleepy village’ feel. First settled by Norwegian Vikings and later built up by Danish traders, there’s a curious mish-mash of pretty Scandi-style cottages and corrugated iron-clad homes – a building material more associated with farm sheds, but surprisingly stylish and ideal for the harsh Icelandic weather conditions.
Temperatures average just 12 degrees in the summer (although a surprisingly mild -1 in winter), so you won’t find the lush parks and vegetation most cities propagate for aesthetics. Instead, Reykjavik relies on strings of fairy lights to soften the industrial feel of the small city. When dusk falls (or doesn’t, in the case of high summer, when the city only reaches the ‘not quite day, but not yet night’ part – known as civil twilight – before the sun begins to rise again) they twinkle prettily in the dark.
But once inside you find Icelanders have learned to counterbalance the starkness of the outdoors with warm, inviting interiors that entice you to kick back and relax – low lighting, plush textiles and darkly-painted walls that wrap you in a womb-like welcome. The inhospitable temperatures actually work to push the community together, and life centres around the ‘simple pleasures’; food, family and having fun.
On those days when the mercury does manage to struggle upwards, Svanbjörg tells us, everyone heads outside, where the endless summer evenings are filled with the sound of laughter and smell of barbecues.
It’s no coincidence that Iceland was ranked the fourth happiest place in the world in 2019, and its Scandinavian sisters – Finland, Denmark and Norway – took the respective top three spots (Sweden was only slightly behind, at number seven).
An island bordered by the Greenland Sea above and the North Atlantic Sea below, Iceland is two hours flying time from its nearest neighbour, Greenland, and this isolation has taught locals to be independent and resourceful.
Its position, straddling the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, didn’t just create the country’s distinctive, almost alien-like landscape, but also gave Iceland an endless wealth of geothermal energy. In fact, it was this very energy that earned the capital its name; when Viking explorers saw plumes of steam billowing from the earth they called it Reykjavik, which means ‘smoky bay’.
This natural resource is harnessed in many different ways; visitors flock to the geothermal fields, home to steaming vents and spring, bubbling mud pools and pressure-built geysers that regularly explode up into the air.
Arguably, the most famous is the Blue Lagoon, a man-made reservoir filled with 37-39 degree water created as a by-product from the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power plant. Rich in minerals, such as silica and sulphur, the water is said to moisturise and rejuvenate the skin and body. There’s a swim-up bar for drinks, and included in your entry price is a mid-lagoon kiosk where you can get a dollop of mud mask to spread over your face.
The lagoon is actually much closer to Kevlavik airport than Reykjavik, so people often make it the last stop on their way home. There’s plenty of storage for your suitcases, and well-equipped changing rooms so you can get ready for your onward flight.
While definitely a ‘must-see’, the Blue Lagoon is, not surprisingly, a tourist hot spot (no pun intended) so be prepared to weave your way through the selfie-stick wielding crowds. If you prefer something less commercialised, there are many other heated swimming pools and natural hot springs dotted around the island, including the Reykjadalur Geothermal River – an entire stretch of heated water that runs through the Reykjadalur Valley.
In fact, steaming geothermal springs are so common that many islanders have them trickling through their gardens and new ones are constantly being created. In fact, Svanbjörg tells us, she knows of a family who, after a reasonably sized earthquake (another side effect of all that tectonic activity), discovered a hot spring had sprouted in their kitchen.
Ever resourceful, Icelanders make the most of this abundant, free energy. Steam is harnessed and used to produce both electricity and hot water, and Icelanders enjoy very cheap energy bills as a result. There are even traditional bakers who use the heat of the springs to prove their dough, then bury it in the water-heated earth to create perfect loaves of ‘hot spring’ rye bread.
This kind of quirky creativity is often seen in Icelandic cooking. Not surprisingly for an island nation, fish is one of the country’s biggest exports and a mainstay on any local menu, both fresh and dried. Lamb is another staple – a common Christmas dish is smoked lamb with potatoes and a bechamel-style sauce.
Bread is traditionally made from rye, as these grains survive better in the harsh conditions, but back in the day, when bread was scarce, Icelanders would eat flattened fish slathered with butter instead.
And I haven’t even gotten to the really weird stuff yet.
Every year to celebrate mid-winter, Icelanders indulge in a particularly masochistic festival called Þorrablót, where they seem to take a strange pride in eating the most bizarre and stomach-turning dishes you can imagine, including whale blubber, puffin, sheep’s head pate, seal flippers, blood and liver sausages and shark.
And if you’re thinking that shark doesn’t sound too bad in context with the others, let me tell you the shark flesh is first left to rot, then hung to dry for several months, before being carved into small yellowy cubes for consumption. Kæstur hákarl, as it is then called, is considered a delicacy and is widely available in stores and Icelandic restaurants.
If you’re considering partaking in some fermented shark, the taste is – apparently – ammonia mixed with fish. Mmmmmmm.
Although now a symbolic festival – almost a test of bravado – its origins were born out of practicality. The isolation of Iceland and its challenging geology, made crop growing difficult. Finding enough food to survive was a daily and genuine problem for the original settlers, who were constantly on the brink of famine. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, so they were forced to make the very most of every morsel they could find – a habit that continues today.
‘We eat EVERYTHING,’ Svanbjörg confirms cheerily, ‘washed down with strong Icelandic liquor!’
Our final stop is Seljalandsfoss, which is fed by the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull – yes, the same pesky volcano that caused so much havoc nearly a decade ago. This one is unique in that you can actually walk behind the waterfall and view it from inside, out. However, queues can be lengthy and the path slippery, so make sure you’ve got good walking shoes and give yourself enough time to complete the circuit. You’ll also get drenched from the spray, so ensure you’re suitably waterproofed.
It’s a good hour-and-a-half back to Reykjavik, plenty of time to admire the grass-tufted rocky landscape of the lava fields, dotted with herds of Icelandic horses. These equines were introduced by Norse explorers over a thousand years ago. They might be smaller than other breeds (just don’t call them ponies!), but they’re strong and hardy, and their unique lineage is fiercely protected. No other breeds can be imported to the island, and horses that leave the country are not allowed to return.
I leave Iceland with regret, feeling like I’ve only scratched the surface of this endlessly fascinating country, where the temperatures are cold, but the people are warm, and so grateful for the abundance of simple pleasures their island provides.
How perfect that the Icelandic word for goodbye, is ‘Bless’.