It may be icy and isolated but this volcanic hotbed impresses with its beauty, writes Mark Juddery.
Icelanders, to be honest, live in a fantasy world. It's written into the law. Many roads are designed to take detours, simply to avoid going through the homes of the local elves and fairies. Builders and town planners also bypass that land. There is even a government minister to ensure they adhere to this plan. "Some people are not sure if they believe in it," one of the locals explains, "but they don't trespass on that land, just in case."
Even without such laws, Iceland has a fantasy aspect. Its natural landscape, shaped by millennia of volcanic activity, is like nowhere else on Earth: smoking geothermal geysers, hot springs, countless spectacular waterfalls, treeless green jungles of soft shrubbery, ranges of flat-topped mountains. It has an other-worldly appearance (making it an ideal location to film fantasy movies such as Stardust and Beowulf & Grendel). In the two weeks I was there, however, I saw no elves, while the only fairies I met were kids in fancy dress at the Hofn Lobster Festival, in which most people in the small fishing town (and many visitors) are lured away from the paintball arena and the two supermarkets for an evening festival of dancing, parades and copious amounts of lobster.
Since its economy collapsed in 2008, Iceland has gone from being one of Europe's more expensive nations to one of its more affordable. Prices of groceries and clothing are now similar to Australia's. This might have hurt several industries but it has been a boon for tourism. It is mostly European travellers who fly over the vast Norwegian Sea to this remote island nation. Many of them don't consider it part of Europe. Not only is it some distance from the continent (nearly 1000 kilometres from Norway) but it also seems like a different world.
This is a mixed blessing. If there is one nation you envy, it probably isn't Iceland. Its remoteness, famously cold weather, vast tracts of icy wasteland and remarkably short days (two hours of sunlight a day in the peak of winter) were bad enough but now the country is broke as well. Who'd want to be an Icelander?
But then you notice the natural beauty, the fresh air, the excellent standard of living (recession or no recession), the wonderful ski fields of winter and the wonderfully long days of summer. In case this wasn't reason enough to be envious of the Icelanders, it's worth noting that they're also a noticeably good-looking bunch. The combination of an outdoor lifestyle, pure water, high food standards and relaxed existence means that their faces are constantly glowing, a picture of good health.
The therapy can start once you leave the international airport, on the way to Reykjavik, with a stop at the Blue Lagoon. This misty, geothermal spa is a 39-degree combination of seawater and industrial waste (yes, really, but don't let that put you off) with great restorative powers. There's nothing magical or whimsical about this, it's science. Pure minerals, algae (of a healthy sort) and silica (from a nearby geothermal plant) not only soothe the muscles but also treat skin conditions. Visitors come here for psoriasis treatment - and if that's their reason to visit Iceland, they needn't even enter a city. But then, they would be missing the delights of Reykjavik.
The world's northernmost capital city, it was also recently named the greenest. Along with strict environmental policies, luck plays a part in this. They have access to some of the purest water on Earth and a small population makes pollution easier to control. While larger than Britain, Iceland has fewer people than Canberra and about 200,000 of them live in greater Reykjavik - like Australia, much of the inland terrain is inhospitable, so most people live near the coast. Capital or not, this is a glorified European village and, like other European villages, entirely charming with its old-style appearance.
Still, it has delusions of cosmopolitanism, resulting in an eclectic culture and a busy nightlife (especially mid-year, when the evenings are as bright as day until close to midnight). You can enjoy the growing collection of coffee houses, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and (if you still have some energy the following day) museums, or take the kids to hug some baby seals at the Husdyragardurinn petting zoo, or try to catch salmon in the peaceful district of Ellidaardalur, in the coastal suburbs.
Reykjavik's surprisingly busy social scene is surely due to the large number of visitors, at least in summer. Whatever the state of their economy, Icelanders (most of whom speak excellent English) are certainly bending over backwards for tourists. Outside Reykjavik, there is no shortage of attractions: horse riding in Grenivik, whale watching in Husavik, kayaking through the fiords, hiking in nature reserves, rent-a-bike tours of mountains and waterfalls.
Heading north-east from Reykjavik, the Glacier Lagoon (Jokulsarlon) is the safest entry point to Vatnajokull, easily Europe's largest glacier, a behemoth that covers almost one-tenth of Iceland's surface. It is also melting, which will transform the map over the next few years. For now, a quick boat tour provides a glimpse of this artistic forest of ice.
Iceland is appropriately named. Even in the middle of summer the mountains heading further north are extremely chilly and both sides of the road bear witness to frozen lakes and snow-capped grasslands - if you can see anything at all. The region is prone to thick clouds of mist, which can render even headlights useless. Materialising from the mist, the historic village of Seyoisfjorour is like a magic town on the other side. Appropriate for this fairytale land.
Iceland's coastal area is filled with such towns. Most fit the same model: a handful of shops, a local museum and a delightful cafe that serves excellent cappuccinos and hot waffles with rhubarb jam.
If Iceland resembles anywhere else, it would be New Zealand. No, they are not really so similar but both are small island nations with geysers, hot springs, impressive greenery, winding roads, cosy farms and a notable lack of native mammals. And wonderful ice-cream. In Iceland, ice-cream is an everyday luxury, with soft serve (often dipped in lime or chocolate) available on tap at even the most remote petrol stations. Perhaps the best of Iceland's famous ice-cream can be found at the Hostelsbuid farm, near the northern town of Akureyri (Iceland's second largest town, with a population of 17,000). The makers of Hostelsbuid's award-winning ice-cream even milk their own cows, using the milk for fresh ice-cream in flavours ranging from liquorice to beer. (As with their ice-cream, Icelanders are very proud of their beer, crediting its quality to the Icelandic water.)
Few travellers (or even native Icelanders) seem to make the journey north-west, which is a pity. They are missing easily the most beautiful part of the country - and, in my experience, the most beautiful part of Europe. Westfjords, the rugged extensions jutting out to the north-west of the map, has miles of mountains and greenery that might be unbearably cold in winter but are wonderfully warm and sunny mid-year, with several friendly towns along the way. It even provides some of the world's most northerly beaches, though swimming in the icy waters of the North Atlantic is a challenging experience at any time of year.
You can't blame the elves for the snaky roads in this area. Here, they are built to avoid mountain ranges, staying along the utterly brilliant coast. Apart from these roads, the area is virtually unspoilt, the air is as fresh as it gets and the natural beauty is tremendous. This was the perfect reminder that Iceland is indeed a fantasy land.
Sadly, that's where my journey finished. From the Westfjords town of Isafjordur, I boarded a plane back to Reykjavik, wishing I had arranged to stay an extra few days to enjoy the west coast. Due to my departure, you will read nothing here of the island of Flatey, known for its colourful flocks of puffins. Nor will you read of Snaefellsjokull, the majestic glacier that Jules Verne chose as the "centre of the Earth".
Who was to know that a nation better known for its desolation than its attractions would offer so much? The elves, wherever they live, have a good thing going. When I return (and yes, I probably will), I'll give myself an extra week. Or possibly more.
The simplest, cheapest way from Australia to Iceland is to fly to London, then fly to Reykjavik. Icelandair is the main airline but Iceland Express is the cheapest, with (perfectly good) flights from Gatwick airport for about $200.
WHERE TO STAY
Iceland has a growing number of hotels, guesthouses, cottages and farmhouse accommodation. See visiticeland.com for more details.
Some handy information booklets can be downloaded from heimur.is/world.