Photo courtesy Brynja Eldon
When talking about Iceland, many people’s responses are only a few degrees above luke-warm. Some complain about the mosquitoes in the summer, the cold in the winter, some about the whaling, others about the ever-erupting volcanoes and their pesky ash… And yet in reality it’s a destination with incredible variety and plenty of fun outdoor activities for family vacations.
You can’t help but feel like you’re in symbiosis with nature and the elements here, because of the Earth’s crust constant (and very visible) evolution. As the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson says, “The moment you start to move the mountain starts to move.”
Reykjavik is an easy choice for first-time visitors, and has lots to offer in terms of culture and access to geothermal areas. Viking fans will particularly enjoy the Saga Museum where History (from the early settlers to the reformation) is brought to life with thwacking axe sounds and bloodcurdling screams. Some of the creepy silicon characters were molded on real Reykjavik residents – see if you can spot them!
The city is dotted with geothermal swimming pools, which are the hub of the city’s social life. Icelanders are scrupulous when it comes to pre-swimming cleaning because the water contains no nasty chemicals, so be sure to take a thorough shower before entering the pools. Árbæjarlaug Geothermal Pool is arguably the best family pool with its clever half-inside, half-outside construction, and has plenty of aquatic entertainment which will keep kids enthralled. They can take their pick from massage jets, slides and waterfalls.
In Reykjavik you can also watch volcanic eruptions from a safe distance at the Red Rock Cinema. Villi Knudsen, a slightly eccentric eruption chaser, took over from his father in the forties and has subsequently dedicated his life to documenting Icelandic volcanoes. His film The Volcano Show projects fifty years of activity and captures extraordinary and unforgettable images. You’ll be left reeling after seeing Villi accidentally stop his helicopter’s engine in the excitement of being above a molten lava crater. Other jaw-dropping scenes include the town of Heimaey being submerged by an eruption.
Slightly further afield, you can visit the town of Hafnarfjörður, the ‘Town in lava’, which rests on a seven thousand year old flow surrounded by huge boulders. Hafnarfjörður supposedly hides a parallel elfin world and these ‘hidden people’s’ homes are reputedly impossible to destroy. Despite the waning belief in these creatures, they remain a popular part of Icelandic folklore with visitors and locals alike, and there are many elven houses in the town which are open to visitors. The tourist office has leaflets on the sculpture trail map which features Hellisger?i, a park with lava grottoes and a favorite elf hang out. Tiny people obviously go with tiny trees, so you can visit a bonsai collection in the park which is free of entry.
Reykjavik is a good base from which to explore the South West of the island, which has plenty to offer in terms of adventure travel activities. After watching the Volcano show, you can see a real volcano. Iceland’s most famous one, Hekla, is roughly fifty miles from Reykjavik and erupts at roughly 10 year intervals. The last one was in 2000, so we are due a belcher soon.
To the North West of Hekla, you can visit two of Iceland’s geysers which are handily next door to each other. Great Geysir, the geyser which gave its name to all others, used to shoot water to eighty meters in the air but sadly got bunged up the fifties because of people throwing in trash to tease out gusts. Since the earthquake of 2000, it’s been erupting two to three times daily. The nearby Strokkur is the most reliable option: it erupts on average every six minutes, between fifteen and thirty meters high. The water gurgles and swirls in the huge plughole then bursts forth suddenly in a great expulsion. The whole geothermal area is peppered with small springs, bubbling milky pools and gusts of steam from vents emerging at around one hundred degrees celsius.
A final ‘must-do’ in the Iceland bucket list is a trip to observe the northern lights (Aurora Borealis), which are set to be the best in 50 years according to NASA. These celestial light dances are visible anywhere in Iceland, but it’s best to get out somewhere really dark like a national park, between the months of September and March. You should remember to leave with a good supply of hot tea and cocoa in thermoses, and lots of warm clothing. The best time to see the lights is anywhere between 9pm and 1am locally, so kids may want to take a nap before heading out.
About The Author: Jennie loves to travel with her family and Iceland is one of her favourite destinations to take them.