It's hard to find a more magical place than Iceland – a vast volcanic island teeming with majestic waterfalls, sparkling glaciers, awe-inspiring mountain peaks and miles of rolling cliffs overlooking black pebble beaches. The scenery comes straight out of a book of fairytales, which almost seems fitting since half of the 320,000-strong population are said to believe in elves – mysterious creatures which live in a different dimension and can only be seen by those with the gift.
If the rich culture and natural beauty of the North Atlantic island aren't enough to win over visitors, they will most certainly be seduced by the bustling capital city of Reykjavik, or the chance to swim in one of the hundreds of naturally-heated outdoor pools and spas which are open all year round. Nothing beats floating in piping hot water with fresh open air cooling your face.
HELLO! Online visited Iceland – which is only a three-hour flight from London – to discover why this land of Vikings is swiftly rising to the top of seasoned travellers' must-visit lists.
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Iceland's coastal capital city Reykjavik has a bustling social scene and a number of top restaurants to choose from
Where to stay
For visitors setting up base camp in the capital, Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina is a great option. A fairly new addition to the upmarket hotel scene, it opened in 2012 and is located next to the fully-functioning dry dock of Slippur. There aren’t many hotels where you can pull back the curtains to see huge tankers and fishing boats on dry land just metres away. It’s just a short walk from the most popular nightspots and restaurants of the city centre, and the hotel's bar itself is a regular hangout for the Icelandic in-crowd. Decor is quirky and colourful, and very Nordic – with locally-sourced wallpaper, antiques and a roaring open fireplace just off the lobby. Other amenities include a 24-hour canteen, restaurant, and a gym for clients wanting to keep up their fitness regime.
Those looking for a completely authentic experience shouldn't miss the chance to stay in Dyrhólaey lighthouse, which has been transformed into a boutique hotel for a limited time only. Between 1 September-1 November travellers taking advantage of Icelandair's Incredible Stopover package can stay in the impressive property – which is still a fully functioning lighthouse, perched atop the stunning cliffs of Vík í Mýrdal, one of Iceland's most southern points.
Local landmark Dyrhólaey lighthouse has been turned into a boutique hotel for a limited time only
The castle-like structure, which boasts stunning views in all directions, has room for a total of five people. Prices start from £1,533 per person for a group of four, and this includes a one night stay and breakfast at the lighthouse, an additional night in a suite at the Marina Hotel in Reykjavik, luxury airport transport and a visit to Fontana Spa. Bespoke packages, which can incorporate the activities mentioned below and more, are also available – see Icelandair.co.uk/Stopover for more details.
The great outdoors
Though many come to Iceland looking to see the Northern Lights, this time of year isn't ideal – the best chance of good views can be found from September to mid April. But the milder months mean milder weather, putting outdoor activities and day trips at the top of the agenda. A word of warning about the weather, though – it's very unpredictable and can change very drastically in the blink of an eye.
Always be prepared – if you're venturing out into the countryside take waterproofs, jackets, warm clothes and a hat and gloves, even in the summer months. Most activities are within two hours' drive of the capital, meaning it's easy to explore with a hire car or personal tour guide. Bring your camera – photographers are in heaven here not only because of the picture postcard-perfect views, but because of the ever changing light. Between mid-May until August it never gets fully dark, while in December the opposite is true – and a muted light shines over the island for a few short hours each day.
The North Atlantic island is an oasis of natural beauty and picture-perfect scenery
There's no better way to take in the beautiful scenery than riding atop an Icelandic horse, whether you're a complete beginner or an equestrian expert. They may look like sweet little ponies but these hardly little steeds have been specially bred – dating back from horses brought over by ninth century Norse settlers – to withstand extreme conditions. Head to Skógar, for horseback riding at Skálakot farm, in the beautiful area of Eyjafjöll, Southern Iceland. Their team of experts have been breeding Icelandic horses for 25 years – so take your pick and set out on an adventure, trotting through lava fields, across streams and up to waterfalls. (See skalakot.com for more info.)
Just a short drive away, 30km east of Skógar is the picturesque Skógafoss waterfall – the jewel in the crown of the island's numerous formidable cascades. What makes this one so special? It's the only one that can be viewed from 360 degrees. A rocky footpath means you can walk behind it to enjoy 60ft of roaring, falling water – and perhaps see a rainbow if the sun is out. It's a short walk from the Gljufrabui falls – another unique waterfall which is partially hidden by its own canyon. Waterproof clothes and wellington boots are essential for this particular type of excursion, which leaves sightseers soaked through in seconds otherwise.
The awe-inspiring Skógafoss waterfall is well worth a day trip
Thanks to dangerous rip tides, freezing water temperatures and powerful rogue waves, swimming is not advised – but a visit to Reynisfjara black beach near Vik, is a definite must. The pebble beach is watched over by the most unusual cliff – a series of endless columns which almost make a pyramid shape – and everything is midnight black. The centrepiece of the beach is a cosy cavern, which locals say used to be home to a couple of trolls. Look out to sea to discover what became of them – the Reynisdragner stacks. Legend has it the trolls waded out to sea to help a ship that had got into trouble at night, but were turned to stone by the rays of the sun as daylight broke.
Looking like something out of a fantasy film, the cliffs of Vík í Mýrdal, one of Iceland's most southernmost points
Body and mind
While the Blue Lagoon is perhaps the best known geothermal spa, Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths - 76km from Reykjavik - is the choice of those wanting to stay away from the tourist trail. It dates back to 1929 and is set on the edge of the beautiful lake Laugarvatn, the shores of which contain natural hot springs. Guests can unwind in a series of interconnected mineral baths of varying temperatures, or in the sauna and steam rooms that are literally built on the edge of the lake, and heated by steam which rises up from the floorboards from the hot springs below.
The more adventurous bathers can venture out and take a dip in the cool lake for a truly invigorating experience, and no one should leave without visiting the café and sampling some local trout and the speciality, Icelandic rye bread. Amazingly, this is baked twice daily on site in the ground, buried in hot volcanic sand for 24 hours. (See fontana.is for more info)
Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths, on the shore of lake Laugarvatn, is the perfect place to unwind
Gormands are in heaven in Iceland - local cuisine puts the spotlight on freshly-caught fish and homegrown delicacies, like free-range lamb with red currant jelly, or tender langoustines fried in Icelandic butter. Tasting menus are a great way to try a selection of the best - Kopar (koparrestaurant.is) in Reykjavik harbour offers a particularly good nine-course menu incorporating sea dishes and countryside fayre.
For a more meat-focused menu, head to Grillmarkadurinn, or The Grill Market (grillmarkadurinn.is) - housed in a reconstruction of the former art nouveau Nyja Bio or New Cinema, which was destroyed by a fire in 1998.
Reynisfjara black beach and the Reynisdragner stacks, which - according to locals - are trolls who have been turned into stone
How to get there
Icelandair flies daily to Keflavík International Airport from London Heathrow and Gatwick. With an Icelandair Stopover travellers can stay in Iceland for up to seven nights at no additional airfare when flying on any transatlantic route. Routes connect 25 European destinations to 14 North American cities, including New York, Seattle and Boston. For a limited time only travellers can book the Incredible Stopover experience described above, staying in the stunning Dyrhólaey lighthouse and undertaking a range of activities. Find out more at Icelandair.co.uk/Stopover.