Nothing can prepare the visitor for the sheer power of Iceland’s landscapes. They are awe-inspiring, threatening and romantic, all at once. There are poetic fjords snaking in from the wild ocean, menacing jet-black cliffs climbing into the clouds, and high plateaus where the grass is flattened by merciless Arctic winds and nine months of snow and ice per year.
The south-west corner of the island is the easiest to access. It is dominated by a series of rift valleys which make up part of the North Atlantic Ridge, a highly active zone where the North American and European tectonic plates are emerging from their molten birthplace in the Earth’s crust and tearing away from each other. This action means that each year the American and European landmasses move a few millimetres further apart.
The physical evidence is everywhere – rock fissures, chasms, geysers, active volcanoes and vast blankets of lava left by ancient and more recent eruptions.
For anyone who has studied geography, loves the outdoors or has a Wordsworthian approach to life and feels their heart and soul lifted by natural beauty, there is no better or more romantic place to visit.
Also, the roads are good, offering easy access to many natural wonders.
The big three (known collectively as the Golden Circle) are do-able in a long day from the capital Reykjavik. They include the graceful double cascade of the Gulfoss waterfall which thunders during summer and freezes during the long Arctic winter. Owners of Echo and The Bunnymen’s Porcupine LP will recognise the frozen falls from the cover sleeve.
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Nearby is the Strokkur Geyser which shoots jets of boiling water 30m into the air with alarming regularity. Look out for it as you drive from Gulfoss – suddenly there will be a white explosion in the distance. Wait six minutes and there will be another: this is Iceland reminding its visitors that beneath the relatively tranquil surface lies a boiling mass of magma and superheated water that could cause widespread havoc at any second.
Third in the Golden Circle is the vast main rift valley and the fissures of Thingvellir. Here, painfully slowly, the tectonic plates are tearing apart. One ancient fissure is particularly striking and comprises several ‘avenues’ between towering curtains of craggy rock along which you can walk. Here also is a fairly ordinary rocky outcrop with an extraordinary claim to fame: it is the site of the world’s first parliament, or Althing, whose inaugural meeting in 930AD was recorded in the famous Icelandic sagas.
The Golden Circle is remarkable and a must for first-timers but wrap them up in a day and move on to the really wild stuff; head east to the vast mass of Hekla, one of the world’s most active volcanoes and more than a year overdue for a large eruption, according to the seismologists in Reykjavik.
It’s climbable but only for the brave – or foolhardy – and only in the summer months when the summit is snow-free or at least only lightly dusted.
The climb is long and can be treacherous so all visitors must take professional advice, immense caution and a local guide if possible. The lower slopes are Martian wastelands covered by a thick layer of small red, black and white volcanic rocks and ash. Gaping eruption craters pepper the landscape, their throats leading steeply and ominously down into a highly unstable subterranean world of fire and power.
All around you are black lava canyons and valleys sweeping down to the flat plains.
Being on the slopes of this mighty and unpredictable giant is thrilling and being there with your partner by your side makes it deeply romantic. There is something irresistible about the immense and harsh beauty of the place, the ever-present danger and the fact that you are experiencing this almost overwhelming natural high together.
After the climbing and the constant threat of death by massive volcanic eruption, you’ll no doubt need something to relax both body and mind. Head south from Reykjavik to the Blue Lagoon, a series of geothermal outdoor pools where you can spend hours floating with your loved one in the opalescent bath-warm water, congratulating yourselves that you climbed a live volcano and survived.
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