ICELAND has been voted the best travel venue for 2010. Australian Times journalist Kate McCabe dips her toe into icy waters in the nation’s captial Reykjavik.
It is 3.45pm when our flight descends into Keflavik Airport. Outside, the sky is as black as midnight and a crisp three degrees.
What have I got myself in for?
One of the hardest hit countries by the financial recession, Iceland is climbing fast up the wishlists of travellers.
My Icelandic explorations exposed me to a young country enriched in unique natural beauty.
The capital city of Reykjavik is no average capital. Resembling a small fishing village or university town, the streets are decorated with colorful cast iron houses line narrow roads; the main shopping streets are packed with local designer stores, vintage clothes outlets and charming bars.
As local knowledge is best, I visited a friend of a friend, South African-born Australian designer Sruli Recht, at her studio warhouse amongst the city’s fishpacking district, and gain a fascinating insight into the use of local Icelandic materials in fashion: shoes from wild horse skin, wallets from minke whale skin and Icelandic wool scarfs dyed with sheep’s blood.
A new day brings another unexpected experience: getting naked in public.
Due to the volcanic nature of the land, many geothermal hot water pools and spas (or ‘hot pots’) are dotted about the country and each with different atmospheres, architecture and bathing opportunities.
Thermal bathing has become embedded into the Icelandic culture with locals using them for healing as well as a social interaction between friends and colleagues.
Being forced to shower without a bathing suit before entering the pools in a room that included a chart on the wall highlighting parts of the body which need require special washing attention) shows just how serious the Icelanders take the tradition.
I found myself on a 1940s building bathing in a 42-degree thermal rooftop ‘hot pot’ above Reykjavik’s skyline with a group of old Icelandic men who were engaging in social conversion in their native language.
This was an unforgettable moment of my travels so far where I felt completely engulfed in the local culture.
On day three, we braved the cold to spend some time experiencing Reykavik’s nightlife.
I had hopes of singing Bjork karaoke, but instead we enjoyed sitting around table at a quaint tavern with a few Icelandic fishermen. Namely so, we drank shots of ‘Fishermen’s Friend’ — a local minty fresh delight which warmed us up from the inside out.
“How do you feel about whaling?” I was suddenly asked by the group’s Captain.
“Australian’s don’t like whaling, do they?”, he added.
Before I had a chance to consider a neutral response he explained to me that the believed there is so much commercial fishing in the world and that if we don’t catch the whales, there will be too many whales and not enough food for them to eat.
“Have you ever tried a whale burger?” He asked. “No”, I answered honestly.
“Beautiful. Just like jelly,” he said.
After this, the issue lingered in the back of my mind and with a closer look at restaurant menus along the city’s streets, I saw dishes of puffin or whale on offer, but couldn’t bring myself to try the delicacies.
Day four featured a trip from Reykjavik along the famous Golden Circle.
The popular tourist route includes the stunning Gullfoss waterfall, and the Gersir geothermal area with its lively geysers which naturally blow tones of piping hot water up into the air with such force it gave me a scare — I was fascinated by it and couldn’t look away.
While travelling between the wonders we marvelled at wild horses grazing in wintry fields, holiday cabins and small farms scattered across the countryside.
Aurora Borialis is something that’s less commonly understood by the average traveller.
I was no exception. I knew it was lights in the sky and it could only be seen from the far stretches of the earth, but what I witnessed in the skies above Iceland was so much more.
Throughout the winter months Iceland provides the perfect viewing platform for the Northern Lights – although sightings are never guaranteed, the chances are favorable.
That night, Reykjavik Excursions took us out on a chase to see the lights and after travelling only 30 minutes we noticed an eery, green glow shimmering over the dark mountain tops.
It may not have been as colorful and predominate as on postcards, but it was something inspiring and strange I never thought I would ever have the chance to observe.
As my trip draws to a close, I pass the famous Blue Lagoon upon my return to London.
Set amongst the barren, black, volcanic landscape of Iceland’s South West, The Blue Lagoon is an oasis.
A large, steamy, blue pool with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It is a priceless view.
Decked out with modern change rooms and showers, and the offering of fluffy white robes, The Blue Lagoon made me feel relaxed from the moment I walked through its doors.
I soaked in the thermal spring water of the Blue Lagoon at 39 degrees (naturally heated from 2,000 metres below the ground) with stream rising up into the below-zero atmosphere, snow falling from the sky. It was an experience so surreal it felt like a dream.
Iceland’s unique landscape is testament to why the nation earned its way onto the top destination list every travelers’ hit list, and during Winter Iceland is at it’s best.
* Only 320,000 people reside in the entire country of Iceland. That’s approximately 4.1% of the population of London.
* Covering a land mass of only 103,000 km sq. Not too much bigger then the area of Tasmania.
* Throughout December and January, the average maximum temperature is just two degrees.
* The isolation of the country has played a part in spawning music greats Bjork and Sigur Ros.