Iceland is so comfortable, and yet so distinct. The old heart of Reykjavik feels like an easy-going small town.
The air is clean and fresh, the streets are safe, and houses, restaurants, factories and even churches are cheerfully colourful. There’s friendly service everywhere, most Icelanders speak fluent English, and the post-crash recovery is going very well.
l Touristic must-do’s
Down by the water’s edge is a proud new performance centre, Harpa, sparkling with multicoloured glass panels. To learn more about Iceland’s fishing history, head for the Maritime Museum. On permanent display is the principal weapon in the bitter Cod Wars with the UK in the 1970s – the patrol vessel Odinn, with its original fishing-net cutting gear like a device from a Bond film. Soaring above just about everything in this low-rise city is the 67-metre-high place of worship, the Hallgrimskirkja. Its stepped wings, like organ pipes, recall the shapes that cooling lava makes on Iceland’s landscape.
l Golden Wonder
Whatever the season, the dramatic seven-hour drive into Iceland’s raw, rugged interior, known as the Golden Circle, is irresistible (it’s where the TV drama Game Of Thrones is filmed.) We pass multiple snow-capped mountains, and also the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, whose ash cloud caused chaos to the airline industry in 2010.
Geysir is a broody, simmering place, spot-on for re-enacting the witches’ scene in Macbeth, and it’s enlivened by eruptions every 10 minutes from Strokkur, its most famous geyser. Next stop is the thunderous waterfall at Gullfoss, where cheerful staff serve sustaining meat soup and cake. The last call is the site of Iceland’s original parliament, Thingvellir – surely the most tranquil and beautiful place for politics on the planet. This rift valley is a site of geological drama. Tectonic plates are drifting apart at an inch a year.
l Starry nights
The Northern Lights is the greatest natural show on Earth, and Iceland is one of the best places to see it. Our driver takes us out of town, where light pollution is low. The display’s already started – a pale green band stretched across the starry sky, pulsing and rippling at random.
On other nights, visitors might see the full-colour display, caused by electrical discharges from the sun colliding with particles in our atmosphere. Sightings aren’t guaranteed, but September to mid-April are the best times to visit.
l Rhapsody in Blue
Iceland offers a unique comfort – the chance to wallow in hot water coursing up from volcanic depths. It’s welcome at any time, but especially on winter days. There are many public pools with natural geothermal water in Iceland, but the swanky Blue Lagoon, midway between Reykjavik and the main airport, is the biggest, and has the best facilities. There’s even a waterside bar, so that you can pose – drink in hand – for a selfie at this popular backdrop. For a sybaritic extra, try a massage, lounging back in the water on a supportive mat. See bluelagoon.com
l Old favourites
I stayed in the neat new Storm Hotel, all soft wood and exquisite Nordic detail. As for restaurants and bars, it is a rare thrill on returning to a place after many years to find a favourite place still open. Kaffivagnin once again serves me exceptional fish and chips.
I also recommend Old Iceland, and, for special occasions, Kolabrautin Ristorante, atop the Harpa concert hall.
There’s a big choice of cosy bars, but rather than expensive imported wine, try local craft beer – the cosy Bjorgarourinn has a huge range. Alternatively, stick to the tap water served in big clear bottles – it is some of the world’s purest.