Iceland: On location

The morning sun is barely visible, but the light illuminating the frozen lagoon is blinding.

By Chris Peacock
Published 15 Apr 2014, 12:49 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 10:20 BST

Gleaming crystal-clear shards pepper a black-sand shoreline, luminous blue icebergs float silently on a mirrored lake, while a colossal icy tongue creeps down from vast snow-covered mountains merging brilliantly into a stark sky.

Rugged, epic and breathtakingly surreal, Iceland's ethereal Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon covers nearly seven square miles along an outlet of Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull (also known as the Vatna Glacier). And it isn't the only thing here that's frozen. Standing on the edge of Iceland's deepest lake, I'm rooted to the spot in awe and see why this sprawling cinematic vista is as popular with filmmakers as it is tourists.

Jökulsárlón's most notable movie moment came during the famed car-chase-on-ice sequence in Die Another Day, but it actually made its screen debut some years earlier in another Bond classic, A View to a Kill, with a suave Roger Moore snowboarding down into the lagoon to escape his enemies with ease.

Continuing the posh-secret-agent theme, Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft could be seen navigating Jökulsárlón's icebergs with Daniel Craig (the current Bond) in Tomb Raider, while director Christopher Nolan later used this sublime, icy expanse as a brooding double for Tibet in Batman Begins.

But Jökulsárlón doesn't get to steal all the limelight. A short drive on Route 1 – an 832-mile ring road circumnavigating the whole country – with local adventure outfit Extreme Iceland, takes our small party to another spectacular glacier outlet in the Skaftafell national park.

Our guide drives us up and virtually onto the glacial tongue of Svínafellsjökull, so we're just steps from its strange, spiky terrain of windswept ice valleys, ridges and deep crevasses, stretching far into the mountainous horizon. But instead of merely marvelling at the frozen ravine ahead, we tool up with crampons and ice axes to penetrate further into the shimmering blue ice shelf.

Spiked boots make walking on the glacial ice slightly less alarming, and it isn't long before our group finds its stride, marching single file to the sound of crunching ice. But with twisting fissures, holes and sheer drops, sticking to a clear path is essential to avoid falling to an icy grave. Peril aside, each measured step on the waxy surface reveals mesmerising layers of colour, from turquoise, sapphire and aquamarine blues to waves of white, brown and black – the latter veins of volcanic ash trapped deep in the ice.

Our planned route meanders along a ridged and crooked ice spine, but we're soon faced with a towering and seemingly impenetrable glassy wall, stopping us in our tracks. It's a fitting time to hear how Svínafellsjökull is a regular star of swords-and-sex TV saga Game of Thrones, with film scouts choosing these frozen wastelands to conjure up the drama's hauntingly isolated land 'beyond the wall'.

With the land beyond this imposing ice wall probably more suited to the series' exiled Wildings, we about-turn and make our way back across the ice to more terra firma. After all, Iceland isn't short on other epic film locations.

In recent years, the country's ghostly glaciers, active volcanoes, thundering waterfalls and bizarre black-sand beaches have created the distinct dramatic realms of Prometheus, Oblivion and Thor: The Dark World – and will do so again this year for Darren Aronofsky's biblical epic Noah. But as impressive as Iceland appears on-screen, nothing beats experiencing its natural film sets for real.



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