Fiery yet frozen, poetic yet powerful, Iceland is a land of contrasts that confounds expectations, writes Lara Brunt
PERCHED ON THE edge of the Arctic, straddling two tectonic plates, Iceland is a hot spot of volcanic activity. And one eruption in 2010 put it firmly on the map. The volcano deep beneath the Eyjafjallajökull glacier burst into life, disrupting world air traffic and becoming a household name - though nary a globalista could pronounce it.
Far from deterring visitors, Eyjafjallajökull boosted tourism; last year, a record 600,000 people visited a country inhabited by just 320,000 people.
Sixty per cent live in or near Reykjavik in the southwest and though they may be descended from Vikings, nature controls Iceland with its ancient mosscovered lava fields, smouldering geothermal areas, and mammoth glaciers.
In summer, the sun barely sets, and in winter, the fabled northern lights dance across the technicolour sky.
While natural disasters are a familiar occurrence in Iceland, the global financial crisis of 2008 left it reeling.
Three major banks collapsed and the country plunged into recession. But its people are nothing if not resilient. In the wake of the economic fall out, Sveinn Sigurður Kjartansson launched Iceland Luxury Tours, offering private tours in a customised super jeep.
"We can arrange a chef to cook you a gourmet meal on a glacier, or combine a super jeep tour with a helicopter flight, landing on Eyjafjallajökull's still-steaming new lava fields," he says.
Some of Iceland's many sublime sights are simple day trips from the capital - Thórsmörk, a hauntingly beautiful valley 130 kilometres southeast of Reykjavik, is such a place.
Named after Thor, Norse god of thunder, it is surrounded by three glaciers - Eyjafjallajökull, Mýrdalsjökull and the mighty Katla rumbling below. The volcano erupts every 40 to 80 years - and is overdue. "The last big eruption was 1918," says Kjartansson. "If you thought Eyjafjallajökull affected air traffic imagine what Katla could do."
The valley is dotted with huge boulders, remnants of centuries-old eruptions, but Kjartansson's Toyota Land Cruiser makes light work of the lunarlike surface. He drives more gingerly on the black ash-filled lagoon at the base of the Gigjökull outlet glacier.
Melted water from Eyjafjallajökull caused flash floods, filling the lagoon with volcanic matter and leaving it unstable, like quicksand in parts. Our tour ends with a fine lobster feast at Fjöruborðið, a cosy seaside restaurant renowned for creamy lobster soup and sautéed langoustine tails.
The Golden Circle tour visits Thingvellir National Park, a series of spouting geysers and the thundering Gullfoss waterfall. Thingvellir is steeped in history: the Vikings established the world's first democratic parliament in AD 930. You can also witness the earth's crust tearing apart, as tectonic plates slowly separate.
Thrill seekers can drive snowmobiles across Langjökull, Iceland's second- largest glacier. Getting there is half the fun; the isolated mountain pass is thick with snow and only accessible by super jeeps with one metrethick tyres in extra-low gear. "We reduce tyre pressure so we almost float on snow," says Kjartansson. Once there, we tentatively set off on snowmobiles, and soon throttles down, we dart across the frozen ice.
After such exhilaration, a dip in one of Iceland's geothermal pools is de rigueur.
Kjartansson leads us to a secret hot spring set in beautiful farmland criss-crossed by milky-blue rivers. Not a soul in sight, just the moon's ethereal glow. "There's nothing like this in the world," Kjartansson says. Sinking beneath the billowing steam, I agree.
Iceland Luxury Tours: Private tour of Thórsmörk from HK$7,700 icelandluxurytours.com
DAYS AND NIGHTS OF BEING COOL
Where to stay: Located in the heart of Reykjavik, 101 hotel is Iceland's first boutique property, a stylish space with sleek cocktail bar - and contemporary art gallery - that embodies Nordic cool. Owned by Ingibjorg Palmadottir, an interior design graduate from New York's Parsons School of Design, the 38-room hotel takes its name from the city postal code, 101. Standard room from HK$2,210. 101hotel.is. Centrally located across from the Icelandic parliament building (Althingi) is the elegant 56-room Hotel Borg suffused with art deco styling and the spirits of the socialites who once Lindy-hopped in its ballroom. Philippe Starck bathroom fittings, Hastens beds and Bang & Olufsen TVs make for refined interior company. Standard room from HK$2,280. hotelborg.is
Getting there: No direct flights from Hong Kong. Iceland Air has two daily flights from Heathrow to Reykjavik, from HK$2,900.
Golf: Iceland may not seem an obvious golfing destination, but the dramatic landscape makes for stunning courses. "One of my personal favourites is the Westman Island course, just off the south coast," says professional golfer and national coach Úlfar Jónsson. Nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano, the 18-hole course has some of the best greens in the country.
Iceland has more than 60 golf courses but the real exotica is midnight golf. Given its northerly location, Iceland experiences 24-hour sunlight during June and July, which means clubs never close. "Playing through the night is a unique experience," says Jónsson. "Usually the wind dies down and it's very calm, quiet and tranquil."
He also recommends the 18-hole lava field and seaside course at Keilir golf club, 10 minutes from Reykjavik, and the 18-hole course at Kidjaberg golf club, an hour south of the capital. "And of course the Geysir golf course, a fantastic nine-hole course with a close view of the original geyser, after which all geysers around the world are named. It has spectacular scenery."
Gourmand: Part of the New Nordic Cuisine movement, Icelandic chefs combine state of the art cooking with local ingredients. Lamb and seafood, such as cod, arctic char and langoustines, are the foundations of their cuisine, but expect to see puffin, reindeer and moose, and even minke whale, on the menu. Fusion is also popular, with Asian and French influences in Reykjavik's hippest restaurants. "Young chefs are getting more creative," says Egill Sigurðsson, restaurant manager at 101 hotel. "But we still celebrate traditional cuisine such as the midwinter festival Thorrablót with rotten shark and sheep balls," he says.
For upscale dining in Reykjavik VOX (vox.is) is the go-to choice, serving innovative, fresh cuisine. The Grillmarket (grillmarkadurinn.is), a converted 1920s cinema, features funky nature-inspired décor with basalt columns and fish skin on walls, and grilled seafood, lamb and beef. Lækjarbrekka (laekjarbrekka.is), in one of Iceland's oldest houses , is an institution serving expertly presented lamb and seafood.