[published by the Hindustan Times, 1 November 2008]
Iceland’s nervous system of primeval hot water has powered its growth from fishing-based colony to playground of the posh, writes Kate Hodal…
From the plane, Iceland looks like a bit of crusty black rock melted down and thrown haphazardly, with octopus-like arms, into a turquoise sea. Fog rolls in slowly over a sky brewing with discontent, over hills velveted with either mossy-green peet or pure white ice, and settle in at the bay.
This is a land where people talk in papery whispers, the air feels pure and water can be drunk straight out of the ground, a land where geothermal hotsprings heat homes and the language so old that ancient Norse, the language of the Vikings, can still be read and deciphered without any problem.
For a country believing in elves and living on a smidgen of volcanic rock near the North Pole, Iceland has managed more in the past 50 years – both good and bad – than most other nations could ever dream of doing.
Once a fishing-dependent Danish colony, Iceland – and its seemingly backward population of sheepherders and cod fishers – were thrust into the world economy after World War II, when large-scale energy investments and foreign capital helped turn the geothermal and hydroelectric power-rich nation into one of the wealthiest in the world.
Now Iceland boasts a standard of living whereby unemployment is exceptionally low, geothermal pools dot the lunar landscape while powering homes and businesses, and more books are published and read per capita here than anywhere else in the world.
FRESH FISH, FROZEN ASSETS
But due to some dodgy banking in the past few years – whereby banks were privatized and expanded to increase overseas lending to more than 10 times the size of the nation’s economy – Iceland has now joined the ranks of Osama Bin Laden on British anti-terror lists. Its assets frozen and $6bn loans requested from the IMF, Iceland seems like the perfect place to avoid – but there’s never been a better time to visit than now.
Once the hip destination of choice for discerning Londoners, New Yorkers and Berliners, Reykjavik is a ramshackled-but-poshly-done-up town that reeks of both fishing village and ski resort.
Geometrically-haircutted Icelandic teenyboppers dart in and out of bars as their parents stall their bumper-to-bumper Alfa Romeos, Audis and shiny 4x4s (the staple of any Icelandic family – the country roads are notoriously bad) down Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s Rodeo Drive, where stores sell diamond-encrusted Rolex watches and garish paisley-printed tuxedos hang in shop windows.
While the whole world seemed to think that Iceland was in the midst of (if not the instigator of) a major recession, restaurants and cafes were busy serving up Icelandic specialties like cod chins and sheep’s head soup to locals and tourists, many of whom had flocked over to take advantage of the krona’s fall in value.
INTO THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
Having wandered Reykjavik’s brightly-painted streets, admired its graffiti and visited avant-garde clothing shops like Naked Ape (where proto-punk 80s is all the rage), we stopped in at Boston, a restaurant started by Bjork’s personal chef and a haven for the city’s glitterati, and ate some lamb soup stewed with cabbage and carrots while sat underneath what seemed to be a still from a pornographic horror film.
The next day, we drive 45 minutes out of Reykjavik to the Golden Circle, a ring of three sites that include tectonic plates, geysers and waterfalls. Our first stop was Thingvellir, the ancient gathering place of politicos and where the geological plates of America and Europe are tearing apart. The so-called senate of chieftains since AD930, Thingvellir looks out on a landscape of turquoise water, volcanic islands, birch and willow groves and a 19th century church – and the view is limitless. Legend has it that one of the crystal-clear lagoons by the church is an oracle – by throwing a coin into it and watching it go down all the way down, you make your wish your come true.
Our next stop was Gullfoss, a waterfall that tumbles like a mini Niagara 70m into a misty gorge. Gullfoss’s roar is what hit us first, as we stumbled up its wet volcanic rocks and gasped at the white water falling down into black, rocky gorges below. As it started to hail (“If you don’t like the Icelandic weather,” the saying goes, “just wait five minutes”), we took off to Geysir, just a short drive away, leaving the storm to rumble along the flat plains visible for miles all round.
It’s rare to see a stream of scalding hot water fling itself out of the earth, but that’s exactly what happens at Geysir, where boiling geothermal water mingles with cold river water, sucking it in, and then out, of the earth. Water shoots up some 30m into the air every seven minutes – with only an orange rope keeping visitors back from the hot, bubbling water, and while some tourists might be busy boiling eggs over the pools’ heat, the emerald, tangerine and crimson rocks that dot the landscape can inspire just as much wonder.
MUD ON YOUR FACE
Back in Reykjavik, we dined at Vid Tjornina, an upmarket fish restaurant down by the city’s duck and swan-spotted lake, where we fed on fried plaice with blue cheese and banana. The restaurant’s old-school feel, replete with old lace, handmade menus, and vintage (but playable) organ kept us warm before we ventured out that night into the cold, waiting in line to see Icelandic electrockers FM Belfast for the city’s annual music festival Iceland Airwaves.
We finally staggered back into our hotel for a gleaming breakfast and a bus to take us to the festival’s after-party at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermally heated seawater akin to the Dead Sea.
Natural white silica mud and algae give it its trademark milky blue colour, where massages take place in the water itself and saunas, waterfalls and a pool-side bar remind you that you are, really, living the highlife – and for only £5 entry!
You can hire swimsuits, bath robes and towels, but be sure to plaster yourself with the big vats of white silica mud masks that line the pools themselves – you’ll leave feeling like you’ve just had a £200 facial, without having done anything but enjoy yourself.
We hoped to catch the Northern Lights on our last evening, but all we could see was a beacon of light shining up into the dark night sky, a so-called peace light that Yoko reportedly shines for John Lennon. He’s got it lucky, I thought. Iceland’s not too bad a place to shed light on.