Iceland is rapidly shaping up to be one of the must-visit destinations of 2016. Aside from the endless reserves of natural beauty, geothermal outdoor pools and bustling capital Reykyavik, drawing new interest are the whisperings that the Land of Vikings will be the backdrop for scenes in the next films in the Star Wars and Fast & Furious franchises.
But how easy is it to discover the real Iceland? HELLO! Online spent 48 hours on the North Atlantic Island with a local expert in an effort to find some the best places and hidden gems to check out during a whistle-stop tour.
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The sun rises over Thingvellir National Park
Our guide Hjördís Elma Jóhannsdóttir, 33, has racked up ten years as a cabin crew member of the country’s biggest airline Icelandair, and is taking part in their new buddy scheme; which allows Transatlantic stopover passengers to book a free guide for 24 hours of their stay. The idea is to help visitors immerse themselves in the local culture, save money, and have authentic Icelandic experiences off the beaten track by teaming them up with a buddy, who are all members of the Icelandair crew.
10:00, Saturday: Thingvellir National Park
The sun rises over Thingvellir National park, bathing the snowy peaks and rock-strewn rolling hills in warm pink and blue light. This south-western beauty spot is of great historical significance to Icelanders as it’s the place parliament met, from 930 to 1798, and also where officials returned in 1944 for the founding of the republic. But there are some tales you wont find in the history books. "This pool of water here," says Hjördís (pronounced Yordis) – pointing to a pretty, partly iced-over stretch of water – "This is called the drowing pit – it's where women were put to death for crimes including infidelity and witchcraft."
Local expert and Icelandair cabin crew member Hjördís Elma Jóhannsdóttir ice skating across Reykjavik pond
Weather in winter
Temperatures in winter – which stretches from October till April – typically hover around the zero mark, and can be anywhere from -10 to 10 degrees. On the day of our hike it’s a chilly -4, but the wind chill factor makes it feel much colder than that. Expect wind, rain, hail sleet and snow – sometimes all at once – so sturdy hiking boots and warm socks are essential, as are waterproof jackets, gloves, scarves and hats. Don’t forget sunglasses though as the sun does often make an entrance, reflecting brightly off the snow.
14:00 Saturday: Secret Lagoon
When deciding to take a dip in one of the island’s open air, naturally-heated geothermal pools, most visitors to Iceland make a beeline for the Blue Lagoon – which is close to the airport – but Hjördís has something much more authentic in mind. The Secret Lagoon, in the Golden Circle’s village of Fludir dates back to 1891 and is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland – many locals learn to swim there. The water is a cosy 38 to 40 degrees – a lovely contrast to the frosty winter air – and the rising steam from the water and the little Geysir which erupts every five minutes gives it a real fairytale feel. The finishing touch for us is having a try of the floating cap and leg bands which Hjördís has brought along for us to try out – they give extra buoyancy at the head and legs, so you can lie back and just float your cares away. (secretlagoon.is)
Secret Lagoon is one of Iceland's best-kept secrets
19:00 Saturday: Harpa concert hall
Following the footsteps of Prince Joachim of Denmark and his wife Princess Marie – who visited for the first time in January – we pay a visit to the formidable Harpa Concert Hall; a towering structure of glass and metal, which houses the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the offices of The Icelandic Opera. It's best visited after the sun goes down, when it's lit up in Northern Lights-esque colours. Culture lovers should check out their programme of events; there are concerts, plays – many in English – and exhibitions aplenty. Entry to the main building is free – and is a good chance to have a wander, pre-dinner, grab a drink and take in the beautiful views of the harbor and surrounding area. (harpa.is)
20:00 Saturday: Apoket restaurant
One of Reykjavik’s hottest new eateries, Apoket offers a mix of Icelandic and European cuisine, with a smoking hot Argentinian grill. Its name comes from Apotekið, which translates as ‘the pharmacy’ due to the fact that the building it was housed in was Iceland’s main apothecary from 1930 to 1999. Many of the original features have been kept in the décor – including old restored wood panels and the original marble and wall fittings. Standout dishes from the kitchen include the dry-aged beef, and 280-day corn fed variety. But it's wise to leave room for dessert, which is made by famed pastry chef Axel Þorsteinsson. Hjördís tells us everything on the menu is outstanding, and she’s certainly not the only notable local who thinks so. At the neighbouring table we spot Hafþór Júlíus ‘Thor’ Björnsson – the Icelandic strongman best-known to Britons as Game of Thrones character Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane. (apotekrestaurant.is)
The Golden Circle's breathtaking Gullfoss waterwall
11:00, Sunday: Gullfoss waterfall
Of all the natural wonders to be found in Iceland, the majestic Gulfoss waterfall has to be one of the most breathtaking. Water from Southern Iceland’s Hvítá (White) river - which is fed by Iceland's second biggest glacier, the Langjökull – hurtles down 32 metres over two levels into a rugged canyon. As we approach, the crevice is obscured from view, so it seems the thundering river simply disappears from view. Those wanting to warm their bones should check out the Gullfoss Kaffi – which is famed for its Icelandic lamb soup.
12:00, Sunday: Friðheimar Greenhouse
Friðheimar Greenhouse offers a truly unique Icelandic dining experience – but it's strictly for tomato lovers only. As we walk through the door we’re instantly hit with the fresh and tangy smell of the rows and rows of tomato plants which are metres away from the Scandanavian-style square dining tables. The greenhouse grows four different varieties of tomato and cucumbers – and it’s pollination time, which means swarms of bees are at work among the plants. But the insects don't so much as bother the diners, who are busy tucking into the greenhouse’s special tomato soup, which is served with crème fraiche and cucumber salsa, fresh-baked bread, double whipped butter and fresh herbs. Even the delicious desserts have a tomato influence – from the green tomoto and apple pie to the cheesecake with green tomato jam, cinnamon and lime. (fridheimar.is/en)
Tomato lovers will love the unique dining experience on offer at Friðheimar Greenhouse
17:00, Sunday: Sky Lounge
Alcohol in Iceland is not cheap. So it's a good idea to find out which bars offer a happy hour – with cut price drinks. So we arrive at downtown Reykjavik's CenterHotel Arnarhvoll and take the lift up to the 8th floor Sky Restaurant & Bar – which boasts fantastic views of the Harpa Concert Hall we visited yesterday – just in time to take advantage; theirs runs from 17:00 to 19:00. Hjördís gives us a master class in Icelandic beer – the white ale is light and fruity while the pale ale is dark and toasted. But the most surprising fact of all is that until Wednesday 1 March 1988 - the day which was later dubbed 'Beer Day' – any lager or ale that contained more than 2.25 percent alcohol content was illegal both to sell and purchase in Iceland. (skylounge.is)
20:00, Sunday: Aalto Bistro
We leave the busy city centre behind, and head to Aalto Bistro, which is situated a short drive away in the Nordic House, opposite the University of Iceland, in the middle of a picturesque bird sanctuary and wetlands. The beautifully-presented cuisine is served up by the country’s TV chef Sveinn Kjartansson. There’s an emphasis on unusual ingredients and the food is centred in Scandanavian cuisine with central-European influences. Fish is the specialty here – don’t miss the Rock Crab cakes on tomato mango salad. (aalto.is)
One of the delicious dishes on offer at Apoket
23:00 Saturday: Hilton Reykjavik Nordica
Our trip to Iceland ends with an after-dinner drink of sweet-tasting Bjork schnapps in the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica hotel – which was also the location of our stay during our whistle-stop trip. The stylish hotel is just five minutes from the busting downtown area, and their chic Lobby Bar is open till 2am on a Saturday night. It’s long before that when we bid a fond farewell to Hjördís, though, as there’s the small matter of a 5.30am wakeup for the three-hour flight back to London. We promise to return, however. Iceland was more magical and wonderful than it even promised to be, and it’s easy to see why visitors often go home sounding like sales reps for this captivating land of the midnight sun. (hilton.com/Reykjavik)
Request a Stopover Buddy to help make the most of your transatlantic Stopover with Icelandair. Buddies are members of the airline team and promise to help passengers make the most of their time away experiencing Iceland through the eyes of a local. Icelandair.com/stopover-buddy.