In the depths of winter, there’s more to see in Iceland than just the Northern Lights. We’re talking enchanting glaciers, hot springs and, of course, horses.
an alien planet
If you fall into a crevasse, we need to get you out quickly,” says Mike Walker, our instructor from Icelandic Mountain Guides. Body heat melts the ice and can wedge you deeper into the glacier, making it difficult for you to get out. “That’s why you need to wear a harness.” Thankfully, Mike assures us they’ve never had to rescue anyone on their glacier treks. Still, standing on top of Iceland’s Svinafellsjokull glacial tongue is a humbling experience.
A cracking sound rumbles deep beneath the icy surface as wind lashes my face. Even though I’m wearing waterproof clothing, I’m wet and cold. Svinafellsjokull is a small section of Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Europe, and was designated a national park in 2008. Trekking it is like scaling a giant ice cube inside an enormous freezer. But it’s stunning, from the volcanic rocks and turquoise-hued crevasses, to the rugged vastness of it all.
The glacier’s otherworldliness makes it easy to understand why it was used as a backdrop for scenes in the sci-fi film, Interstellar. In fact, Iceland’s diverse landscape has featured in countless movies and TV shows. The icebergstrewn Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon appeared in two Bond films and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
1 An ice formation doubles as a picture frame on Svinafellsjokull glacier.
2 Make Iceland’s capital Reykjavik the start and end point of your trip.
3 Expect the water temperature in the Blue Lagoon – a geothermal spa – to sit between a steamy 37 and 40 deg C.
4 Soaking in a hot spring is a rite of passage for any visitor to Iceland. in countless movies and TV shows. The icebergstrewn Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon appeared in two Bond fi lms and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
5 Reynisfjara beach is among the most beautiful black-sand beaches in the country. It’s a two-and-ahalf hour drive from the capital.
6 Icelandic horses are famed for their friendly disposition.
7 Gullfoss waterfall – a massive, two-tiered waterfall – is one of Iceland’s most breathtaking sights.
There's an ever-changing, live version of a National Geographic documentary outside your car window.
Everything that happens north of the Wall in Game of Thrones was shot in Thingvellir National Park. And Reynisfj ara black sand beach, near Vik, was the setting for scenes on planet Eadu in Rogue One.
Filming is often done in winter, between October and April, for good reason – during winter, these destinations are sheer magic. While the north is mostly inaccessible at this time of year due to inclement weather, South Iceland is easy to navigate on a selfdrive tour, as the roads are open and it’s business as usual. Companies such as Nordic Visitor put together personalised itineraries, and organise everything from car hire and hotels to Northern Lights tours and horse rides. They also brief you on safety – in a country with the word “ice” in its name, it’s good to be prepared.
Everyone repeats the same advice: “Keep your eyes on the road.” The reason becomes apparent as we swerve onto the rumble strip while admiring the scenery – an easy mistake to make when there’s an everchanging, live version of a National Geographic documentary outside your car window.
As we drive eastwards from the capital, Reykjavik, following the route mapped out by Nordic Visitor, we barely see other cars on the road – not surprising in a country of just 334,000 people. We see streams cascading down cliff faces, gnarled birch trees, and landscapes of volcanic rock blanketed in moss. We pass acres of snow-covered farmland on the drive to Hestheimar, a horse ranch in the town of Hella – we’re there to ride the fabled Icelandic horse.
Brought to Iceland by the Vikings, the Icelandic horse is one of the purest equine breeds in the world. It’s known for its triple-layered coat, which protects it from the harsh climate; its small 140cm stature; pleasant disposition; and a mane that wouldn’t look out of place on an ’80s rock star. While most other horses have four gaits – walk, trot, canter and gallop – the Icelandic horse has a fifth gait known as tolt. Its footfall is similar to a walk, but at least one foot remains on the ground at any time, so there’s no period of suspension. This means a smoother, more comfortable ride.
As I haul my 170cm frame into the saddle, I express concern at such small horses carrying adults. But Marteinn Hjaltested, the owner of Hestheimar, assures us they’re used to carrying men as tall as 180cm and as heavy as 110kg. As we ride into the snowscape beneath a pale blue sky, we pass treeless paddocks smothered in white. On a 0 deg C April day, at walking pace, my hands go numb inside my gloves.
Marteinn suggests we speed up to get our blood flowing. It’s time to tolt. “Drop your weight into the saddle, and shorten your reins,” he instructs. I adjust my posture, and the stallion takes off at a jaunty amble. It’s a comical sensation, like a teabag being jiggled over a teacup. But as I watch Marteinn, there’s a surreal elegance to it: He appears to be floating as the horse prances beneath him.
After an hour on horseback, I am chilled to my core. We drive about 40 minutes north to the village of Fludir, home to a geothermal pool called the Secret Lagoon. Created in 1891, it’s Iceland’s oldest swimming hole, and more rustic than the party-like atmosphere at the Blue Lagoon, with its swim-up bar.
Goose pimples cover my body as I step out of the changing room in my swimsuit, into the icy afternoon, and plunge into 38 deg C water. Steam rises, and the sun throws orange beams over the horizon. Surrounded by volcanic rock and bare trees, I savour the view.
Icelanders have a saying when they need to make a decision: Leggja hofudid i bleyti. Loosely translated, it means to lay your head in water and think things over. As the tension melts from my muscles, overstimulated from days of exploring this wild country, I know I’ll return to Iceland.
ICELAND: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
❄ WHERE IS IT?
Located in the Arctic belt, this Nordic island nation’s closest neighbour is Greenland, about 280km to its west.
❄ HOW TO GET THERE
Several airlines fly direct from Singapore to Reykjavik. The flight usually takes around 17 hours, and includes one stopover.
❄ YOU CAN GET BY WITH ENGLISH
Icelandic is the official language, as you’ll see by the country’s road signs. But you’ll be fine – most Icelanders speak very good English.
❄ YOU’LL GET SOME SUN
For most of the year, expect 12-hour cycles of daylight and darkness. In December and January, each day has only about five hours of daylight. From May to August, Iceland experiences the midnight sun – 24 hours of continuous light.
❄ IT’S COLD
Temperatures dip as low as minus 2 deg C in winter, and go as high as 13 deg C in summer.
❄ PACKING TO STAY WARM
Regardless of the season, expect wind, sun, rain or snow at any time. Take warm clothes, thermals, a waterproof jacket and hiking boots.
❄ IT’LL COST YOU
A nine-day trip for two people during winter – including airfares, hotels, car-hire and activities – costs about S$10,000.
Arctic char, which tastes similar to salmon; or one of Reykjavik’s famous lamb hot dogs. Feeling brave? Order fermented shark or sheep’s head.