ALTHOUGH the most sparsely populated country in Europe, with roughly 320,000 citizens to its 103,000km2, Iceland is packed with action.
Nowhere is this more true than downtown Reykjavik on a weekend, when the city comes alive to the sounds of its renowned nightlife.
Arriving early on a Friday morning, we headed to the cosy confines of Hotel Holt, then set off on our own walking tour of the city, grazing at its feast of good eateries as we went. A must for dinner is Dill, where the seafood could not be fresher; scallops and shrimp arrive daily. And don’t leave without imbibing at least a shot of the house-made birch liqueur, Birkir, after which you’ll be raring to partake in the local tradition of dancing until dawn.
The best nightclub in town is B5, and if you make it back there the next day you can feed your hangover with one of the top 50 burgers in the world at its Burgerjoint restaurant.
It’s easy to see why the capital city is the island’s most popular destination, but there is so much more to see outside Reykjavik, regardless of the season. Despite its name, Iceland actually has fairly mild weather year-round, thanks to the Gulf Stream, and sunlight occupies much of the day in the summer months, making exploring even more appealing.
If you’re based in the capital, a tour with Reykjavik Excursions is a good bet. Fully customisable and with a plethora of options, you can go for a full day or a few hours. On the Super Jeep tour, a giant, customised SUV will pick you up from your hotel and quickly head off-road. We opted for an adventure through lava fields, finishing up at the famous Blue Lagoon – where the water is always warm, so don’t forget to pack your swimming gear.
Another alternative to sitting on a tour bus full of strangers is to hire a rental car and circle Iceland at your own pace on the Ring Road. Leaving the environs of Reykjavik, we stopped by the Golden Circle and its hot springs and Geysir Geothermal Area. Admittedly, it’s touristy, but there’s a very good reason why people flock to gaze at these wonders of nature, and the massive Gullfoss waterfall will likely be the last stop before your 120km drive to Vík, the southernmost town in Iceland.
There, after a night at the minimalist but clean and comfortable Hotel Hofdabrekka, a black sand beach awaited us. Named one of the ten most beautiful beaches on earth, with its volcanic strand and sprawling cliffs, it’s also appreciated by the colonies of puffins who call this unique and breathtaking landscape home. According to legend, the rock formations rising up out of the sea were formed when trolls attempted to drag three ships ashore.
The otherworldly theme continued at Skaftafell national park, where we felt like we had landed on another planet as we hiked across a glacier in crampons, thanks to Icelandic Mountain Guides, then watched as icebergs, thousands of years old, floated past our boat in the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
After breathing in the crisp, clean, Icelandic air, the obligatory hot springs are the perfect way to end your day before a night at the Hotel Hofn, where the rooms have glacier views.
Hitting the Ring Road again, with a detour for yet another spectacular waterfall at Godafoss on the way, we headed north to the fishing, golfing and hiking territory around the city of Akureyri, with its charming timber architecture. From a choice of hotels, we opted for the Kea, which has been providing a warm welcome since 1944.
The cold waters offshore here are superb for trips to spot whales and seals. Seeing humpbacks mere metres from the boat is astounding. With an appetite built up, we took the short drive to Skagaheioi and the Hannes Boy Restaurant and Kaffi Raudka bar next door, which offer local cuisine and a great atmosphere in which to gather outside and take in the views over a reviving drink.
If you prefer horses to whales, try Icelandic horse-riding at Abbi Island, where the sturdy native species will take you on rides and treks throughout the Vatnsnes region (but be aware you need disinfected or new clothing), while for adrenalin junkies there is Bakkaflöt river rafting in Maelifellshnjukur, where a choice of ‘relaxing’ or ‘exhilarating’ rapids is on offer. The cosy little Osinn restaurant in Blonduos is your reward.
Heading back south to Reykjavik, stop by the Borgarfjöröur area, where glaciers, waterfalls, lava fields and opportunities for cave exploring abound. Spend the day hiking to the hot springs, or indeed in the hot springs, or investigate the scattered fishing villages of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, a national park where time seems to have stood still. Then it’s back to Reykjavik, with excellent whale-watching just outside town, or the Blue Lagoon for one last lazy float en route to the airport.
You could spend a week or a month in Iceland, meandering your way round the Ring Road route, but no matter how long you have it is sure to be ótrúlegt – Icelandic for amazing.
Rooms cost from £97 at Hotel Holt (www.holt.is); from £171 at Kea Hotel (www.keahotel.is); from £120 at Hofdabrekka Hotel (www.hofdabrekka.is); and from £215 at Hotel Hofn (www.hotelhofn.is).
Dill Restaurant (www.dill restaurant.is); Burgerjoint (www.b5.is); Hannes Boy Café and Kaffi Rauðka (www.raudka.is); Osinn (www.osinn.is)
Icelandair (www.icelandair.com flies from Scotland to Reykjavik from £204;
Multiple Operators: (iceland.carrentals.is); Hertz (www.hertz.is)
Reykjavik Excursions (www.re.is); Icelandic Mountain Guides (www.mountainguides.is); Elding Whale Watching (www.whalewatching.is); Bakkaflot (www.bakkaflot.com); ATV Adventures (www.atv-adventures.com); Arinbjörn Jóhannsson (www.Abbi-Island.is)