Iceland looks set for a busy summer season since it’s been added to the UK’s green list for travel. And it’s ready to welcome tourists with newly launched road trips, hot springs and volcanic eruptions, as Florence Derrick discovers
Is there a destination more perfectly suited to post-lockdown travel than Iceland? As Europe’s least densely populated country, the island has social distancing in place by default. And if its plentiful hot springs, abundance of fresh ocean air and endless hikes via geysers and waterfalls are anything to go by, Iceland has been toting wellness since long before it became a tourism trend.
Brits are in luck this summer, as Iceland being added to the UK’s green list means that it’s open for holidays. Vaccinated travellers only need to quarantine for 24 hours on arrival while awaiting the results of their free, on-arrival PCR test (if you haven’t been vaccinated, you’ll have to take a pre-departure test and another test on arrival, then self-isolate for five days). Coming back to the UK, you just need to take two Covid tests – no quarantine necessary. Here’s how to experience Iceland’s newest attractions while avoiding its busiest routes.
If you’ve been to Iceland before, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of – or driven around – the Golden Circle. The driving tour is around 250km and one of the most popular ways for tourists to tick off the island’s most famous attractions: the capital, Reykjavik; Þingvellir National Park; Geysir geothermal area; and Gullfoss waterfall. British first-timers heading to Iceland this summer will probably make a beeline for this route – but you can experience Iceland’s multiple geysers, waterfalls and clifftops on a brand-new sightseeing trail that’s yet to be discovered by the masses: the Diamond Circle.
Launched in 2020, this driving circuit is a similar length to the Golden Circle but links five major Icelandic highlights: Goðafoss, Lake Mývatn, Dettifoss, Ásbyrgi and Húsavík. Like a mini Niagara Falls, Goðafoss is a 12-metre-high waterfall cascading off a horseshoe-shaped cliff, while Mývatn is the country’s fourth-largest lake, surrounded by black lava fields and mini volcanoes called the Skútustaðagígar pseudocraters. Then it’s on to Europe’s most powerful waterfall – thundering Dettifoss – before the woodland-lined Ásbyrgi canyon and finishing with whale watching in Húsavík.
Even more famous than the Golden Circle is Route 1. Iceland has one main road – a 1,322km ring road that encircles the whole island – and seeing as it takes at least a week to drive it in the summertime, it’s a popular way for visitors to explore the island nation in their hire car. But for an even wilder, more remote view of Iceland, there’s Route 2, also known as the Westfjords Way.
The 950km trail, which launched to visitors in autumn 2020, ventures into a region that tourists rarely go to. The Westfjords, a vast peninsula in the extreme northwest of Iceland, is one of the island’s most untouched regions – not least because it’s a considerable distance from the Golden Circle’s ‘must-see’ destinations. Sparse, dotted settlements coexist with nature on a dramatic scale: the Dynjandi series of waterfalls rivals Goðafoss and the pink sands of Rauðasandur offer a pristine alternative to the black sand of most other beaches in Iceland. The natural hot spring at Hellulaug offers unique views of the ocean as you bathe, and you might even catch a local festival at Isafjordur, the region’s largest town – of 2,600 inhabitants.
The harbour town of Húsavik slid into the global consciousness in June 2020 when the film Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire and Saga appeared on Netflix, starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as Icelandic Eurovision hopefuls. Húsavik got a second moment in the limelight when the movie’s title track Húsavik was nominated for a best original song at the Oscars. With just 2,300 inhabitants, it’s more than likely that fans of the show will run into extras around town, and perhaps even some Ferrell-related anecdotes from his time there.
Netflix aside, coastal Húsavik should be on your travel radar. Known as the ‘whale capital of Iceland’, it’s home to 23 species of whales, including humpbacks and even the elusive blue whale. Whale watching tour boats in Skjálfandi Bay outnumber fishing vessels and puffin colonies line the water’s edge. Húsavik is also the oldest settlement in Iceland, with a rich cultural history to be explored at the Museum House and a local drama society constantly ranked among the best amateur theatre groups in Iceland. The town’s newest attraction? A geothermal sea bath, where you can soak your bones with views over the magnificent bay.
It’s almost certain that a trip to Iceland will feature the creative capital city Reykjavik, the hub of all international flights to Iceland and the world’s northernmost capital. And this year, there’s one must-visit attraction: a brand-new geothermal lagoon, on the North Atlantic Ocean’s edge just outside of downtown Reykjavik. The Sky Lagoon opened in spring 2021, offering visitors a soak in a warm, 21-metre-squared infinity pool with sweeping ocean views. Come nightfall, Iceland’s famously dark skies set the scene for stargazing or – if you’re lucky – a view of nature’s most spectacular light show, the Northern Lights. The Blue Lagoon just got some serious competition.
There are about 130 active and inactive volcanoes in Iceland, with around 30 volcanic systems bubbling under its surface. The most recent eruption was on the Reykjanes Peninsula – a Unesco Global Geopark since 2015 – in March. Things escalated in May, when lava fountains began to spray up to 460 metres high – that’s taller than the Empire State Building. The red glow of lava was visible from Reykjavik, 70 kilometres away.
Want to check out the volcano site? It’s easy enough, as long as visitors are aware that fast-changing weather and the possibility of new eruption cracks can make a trip there unpredictable. The site isn’t far from the Blue Lagoon – in fact, keen hikers can park up at the lagoon and walk for around five hours from there to the Geldingadalir Valley, where the eruption is ongoing. Just wear good hiking shoes and warm, waterproof clothing, and bring plenty of food and water. Telephone signal in the area is patchy and you’ll probably be grateful for a GPS device in case you get lost. But you’ll be rewarded with an awe-inspiring site: geology in the making. Watch the livestream of the eruption to get in the mood.