Sunday 9 August 2009 8:00 pm

Mix banging techno with minke whales in spectacular, friendly Iceland

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THE high cost of a pint of beer used to mean that Iceland was out of bounds for all but the most well-heeled traveller. But the financial catastrophe the country has suffered in the wake of the credit crunch, while devastating for its population, has made it far more accessible, and tourism is expected to be a key focus for economic revival. If you’re looking to escape the crowds, then it remains the perfect bolt-hole, as it is home to a population of just a little over 300,000 – two thirds of whom live in and around the capital, Reykjavik.

The city is famous for its nightlife, but Iceland is not just a party place. The lava-hewn land of spouting geysers, sheer glaciers, volcanic rock formations and waterfalls make the country perfect for an adventure-filled break, too. This magnificent country is synonymous with adventure travel, and in just five days we managed to cram in an exhilarating white knuckle rollercoaster of hiking, riding, rafting and climbing – not to mention more than a few nights out in the capital city.

Our immersion into this magical place was almost immediate, as within just a few hours of landing I found myself astride a small but sturdy Icelandic horse, crossing the ancient lava fields surrounding Mount Helgafell volcano. And, as we rode across the prepared cinder tracks in the silver light of late afternoon, I felt as though I could actually be riding on the moon.

That same evening, with our bags safely checked in at the Hilton Nordica Hotel, we decided to sample a little of Reykjavik’s legendary night-life. The Hilton is within walking distance of the centre, and we soon found our way past the bustling harbour to the quirky shops, cafes and bars of Laugarvegur – the capital’s main drag.

The world’s northern-most capital attracts food-lovers, culture vultures and revellers in their droves, and with nearly 24 hours of daylight over the summer months, Reykjavik truly rocks. The music scene’s great and the bar scene’s even better, and given that the clubs don’t really get going until after 10pm – and don’t subside until gone 5am – this is the perfect place for an all-night pub crawl.

While the singer Bjork may be Iceland’s most famous export, we headed off to watch Hjaltalin – one of the latest breakthrough acts (think Arcade Fire meets The Magic Numbers). The round-the-clock daylight meant it was still beautifully bright when we finally left for home – although Reykjavik’s beautiful people were still going strong. Still buzzing after far too few hours of sleep, we arose early the next morning to go whale-watching – one of Reykjavik’s most popular pastimes.

We joined a half-day excursion from Reykjavik Harbour, and spent a very enjoyable morning standing on the deck of our boat spotting minke whales, dolphins and puffins in the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

But our “down-time” was to be short-lived, as by midday we were kitted out in wetsuits, waterproofs and helmets, and launching ourselves into the small inflatable dinghy that was going to sail us safely down the rapids on the rugged Hvita River.

After spending that night in the simple yet ample Hotel Skogar – enjoying wonderful home-made food and a very welcome soak in the hot tub gazing up at the vast tumbling waterfall of Skogarfoss – it was time to set off on our 12-hour hike over the Fimmvorduhals Pass from Skogar to Thorsmork.

Iceland is blessed with a stunning array of waterfalls, and this hike takes in 33 of them along with an astonishing abundance of plant and bird life. The 25km trek is a challenging yomp which takes you from the lower slopes of the Southern highlands to Thorsmork Nature Reserve – traversing the pass between two spectacular glaciers at around 1,000m, and crossing a series of incredibly serene snowfields. We were lucky to trek this relatively tough – and in parts, quite technical – route across narrow ridges in glorious sunshine, which meant we could take the time to marvel at the fantastic views to the north over the highlands and Thorsmork valley, as well as to the black coast and Westman Islands to the south.

That said, the weather can be very unpredictable in this area, so it’s well worth having a guide. Mountain Guides runs both day hikes and longer guided tours, and we were accompanied by the unfalteringly strong-but-silent Arnar, known as “Arnie”.

On arrival at the simple wooden mountain hut in Thorsmork that was to be our home for the night, our hosts plied us with a feast of barbequed lamb and fish and a hefty helping of the local tipple Brennivin – or “black death” as it is otherwise known – which ensured we all had a good night’s sleep.

The following day, Arnie dragged us from our sleeping bags and fitted us with crampons so we could hike over the ice field of the Solheimajokull glacier, admiring the sculptures, ridges and deep crevasses of this icy landscape as we walked. On reaching what can only be described as a vertical ice wall, Arnie then proceeded to attach a rope to the wall and his waist, hand us each a helmet and set of picks, and somehow succeed in coaching us all to the top of the sheer ice.

With the ice-climb completed, we were all ready to collapse in the back of our super-jeep for the journey back to Reykjavik, but before we knew it, we found ourselves whisked to the strikingly bleak southern coast to spend an adrenaline-pumping half hour driving up and down the volcanic-ash sand-dunes – leaving a cloud of fine black sand in our wake. On our final day, we had one last mission to complete – a full throttle tour across the Reykjanes Peninsula on ATVs with Iceland Excursions, who kitted us out in gloves, helmets and overalls, and took us out for an hour of high-speed white knuckle fun over the gravel mountain roads.

Mentally and physically exhausted, we rounded off our trip with a quick dip in the milky waters of the Blue Lagoon, wallowing just long enough in the mineral-rich waters to smear our faces in the regenerating mud.

Looking back over our time in Iceland, it’s difficult to appreciate just how much we managed to cram in during our short stay in this place of epic landscapes and expansive skyscapes. This magical island is intoxicating in so many ways – I can only recommend you go there to drink up all it has to offer.

The Deluxe City Break deal from Icelandair costs £299 and includes return flights and three nights at the Reykjavik Hilton Nordica. For more information, contact Icelandair at ( and the Icelandic Tourist Board at (


The twilight horse trek with Ishestar Riding Tours costs £27 per person and can be booked at; the whale watching tour with Elding costs £40 for an adult and can be booked at, and the white water rafting with Arctic Adventures costs £34 per person, and can be booked at
The Skogar to Thorsmork hike can be booked through Mountain Guides at; glacier hiking and ice-climbing can be booked through the same company at a cost of £40.
The ATV tour on the Reykjanes Peninsula costs £73, and can be booked through
To relax and unwind, head to the Blue Lagoon (; entrance costs £20 per adult.

We based ourselves at the four-star Hilton Nordica Hotel ( which costs from £60 per night including breakfast, and dined at the Hilton's award-winning Vox restaurant (
Prior to the trek from Skogar to Thorsmork we spent a night at the Hotel Skogar ( where a superior double mid-season costs from £150.
The overnight stay at the Basar Mountain Hut in Thorsmork must be booked ahead at (, and costs just £11 a night.

The Deluxe City Break deal from Icelandair costs £299 and includes return flights and three nights at the Reykjavik Hilton Nordica.
For more information, contact Icelandair at ( and the Icelandic Tourist Board at (