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Top 9: Iceland adventures

With a landscape packed with volcanoes, glaciers, lava fields and hot springs, Iceland is a paradise for nature nuts — and these activities fit the outdoorsy bill

By David Whitley
Published 14 Jun 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 14:58 BST
Northern Lights at Mount Kirkjufell, Iceland

Northern Lights at Mount Kirkjufell, Iceland

Photograph by Getty Images

01 Descend into a volcano
The hike across the stark, mossy lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula is just the start of it. Once you're finally at the top of Þríhnúkagígur, the only way is down — straight down. Descend 400ft into the volcano's magma chamber in a lift that looks suspiciously like the ones window cleaners use when they're polishing skyscrapers. Inside, the volcano is a hollowed-out vision of colour and enormity. Ash on the walls crumbles under a finger's touch and droplets of water dribble down the rock. Awe-inspiring is perhaps an overused term, but here it's appropriate. This is a place that makes you feel very, very small.

02 Go whale & puffin watching
Whales can be seen in the waters around most of Iceland's coastline, but Húsavík is regarded as the hotspot. Minkes have been joined in recent years by humpbacks, and that variety is mirrored by tour operators' options. North Sailing offers a whale-watching tour on a traditional sailing ship. There's also one that mixes things up by going to see dolphins and puffins as well.

03 See the Northern Lights on a Snowcat
During the winter, the odds of seeing the Northern Lights are pretty good. Arctic Freeride offers tours in its Pisten Bully Park 300 Snowcat, which can carry up to 28 people, that head up the Múlakolla mountain to the north of Akureyri. In the day, that means spectacular views out over fjords and islands but at night, it means near-Arctic conditions for the world's greatest light show.

04 Snorkel Silfra
This gap between two continental plates has filled with water that's made its way down from the Langjökull glacier. Once you're in the water — it's only a smidge above freezing — you don't care how cold it is. There are no fish and no coral, but the visibility is extraordinary — ever-deeper blues unfold below while the chunky basalt rocks create a crystal-clear canyon on either side.

05 Conquer the iceberg lake
"We're on our way to the most beautiful iceberg in the world," says the Zodiac boat driver. Well, this week's — they don't last long after breaking off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which makes every outing on the iceberg-packed Jökulsárlón lake different. Some bergs are tall and mighty, others are blue. And sailing up close to the glacier wall is really special.

06 Clamber through a lava tunnel
Víðgelmir is no ordinary cave — it was cut out by lava flows after an eruption, leading to walls that look like weirdly smooth melting chocolate. Big chunks of rock on the floor of the mile-long cave are where the lava cooled and cracked. And, astonishingly, more than 1,000 years since the eruption, the tunnel walls are still cooling. Heading inside provides an eye-opening lesson on how volcanoes work.

07 Swim the Blue Lagoon
Geothermal power plants have rarely been so cool. The water processed by the Svartsengi Power Station has turned into an eerie man-made lake that's a milky blue colour. Each year, around 700,000 people visit the Blue Lagoon to splash in the thermally heated waters and watch the vapour rise from the surface. It's 37–39C in there, the minerals supposedly have healing properties and it all feels brilliantly silly.

08 Enter a glacier
It should be the colours — the ice is backlit in blues and pinks, with a wedding chapel carved out of it — but it's not; it's the sounds of gurgling pipes that's most memorable in Langjökull glacier. Getting there involves bouncing along the ice in a giant monster truck, until a little hatch leads to the man-made tunnels dug into the ice. This is igloo-making on an epic scale; a fantasy ice palace carved in one of the planet's most treacherous locations.

09 Kayak the fjords
If it's fjords you want, then paddling along them in a kayak gives a duck's eye view. Borea Adventures runs day-long kayaking tours along the length of Seyðisfjörður fjord, around the Folafótur peninsula and into Hestfjörður fjord. Look out for seals, dolphins and lots of seabirds.

Follow @mrdavidwhitley

Published in the Trips of a Lifetime guide, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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