October 11, 2018
By Jeanette Parkin
First-time Iceland is easy: witness the mighty roar of the falls at Gullfoss, attempt to photograph the moment Strokkur geyser erupts, party like a Viking in Reykjavik and then dash through the ice-cold air in just your swimwear to reach the bath-like Blue Lagoon.
When you go back, however – and you will want to go back – there are many more attractions, activities and bucket-list experiences that Iceland practically begs you to tick off. Let us take you on a tour of Iceland’s wild side.
Iceland is teeming with beasts of the bizarre and beautiful; on your second trip, make wildlife a priority, starting at the island’s otherworldly Westfjords. The drive from Reykjavik to the Westfjords peninsula takes between three and five hours – it's easy to rent a cheap hire car in Iceland – so you're going to need a few days to really make the most of the journey, but it is one of the best places in Iceland for wildlife spotting.
A few species of seal – mostly harbour and grey seals – bask in the sun during low tide around the rocky shoreline of the Westfjords. Walrus sometimes pop up in this wild corner of Iceland too. Arctic foxes, Iceland's only native mammal, also have a large population in the Westfjords. With only one in ten tourists to Iceland making the journey to the peninsula, wildlife watching is blissfully quiet.
Whale-watching trips are available all around the wild Icelandic coast, including from Reykjavik. Some of the best opportunities occur off Husavik and Akureyri, in the north, and in the Westfjords. The peak months for whale watching are June, July and August, though trips run March to November.
Colonies of breeding puffins – the "clowns of the sea" – enjoy the Icelandic summer. See them in their thousands on the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago (2.5-hour drive/ferry from Reykjavik), on the Latrabjarg cliffs of the Westfjords, or at the striking arch of Dyrholaey, which is a 2.5-hour drive from the capital.
While Gullfoss is the gushing star of the Golden Circle, you'll be practically tripping over waterfalls as you tour the edges of mountainous, snow-topped Iceland.
Seljalandsfoss is both easy to reach from Reykjavik (a 90-minute drive along the Route 1 ring road) and breath-taking in its beauty. It is a tall single fall of 63m, but the best bit is that you can walk in a loop behind it – waterproof cameras required.
Another 25 minutes east on Route 1 takes you to Skogafoss – a picturesque waterfall, usually crowned by one or two rainbows. You can climb the steps to the top or get soaked standing at the bottom. An hour north of Reykjavik, and for a little waterfall variety, the wide series of mini falls at Hraunfossar are spectacular. Barnafoss is close by too.
Planets in the Star Wars franchise, an alien land in Prometheus, and one of the Nine Realms in Thor's Marvel universe: it's fair to say that Iceland has otherworldly qualities beloved of filmmakers and adored by adventurous tourists.
You don't need to go schlepping off across the snow like Han Solo on Hoth to discover these mind-blowing locations.
Iceland's black-sand beaches often take starring roles in fantasy films, and you could be stood on the most famous of them in 2.5 hours from Reykjavik. Reynisfjara, close to the village of Vik, not only has volcanic black sands, but pounding Atlantic surf that batters enormous stacks both out at sea and columns of basalt that tower above you at the back of the beach. You have to see it to believe it.
There are plenty of ways to get the adrenaline going in Iceland (outdoor activities coming up next). For those who like to take the slow lane on the adventure highway, consider horse riding or trips to seek out the Northern Lights.
The stocky, winter-shaggy Icelandic horse (with an extra gait for those with equine knowledge) will become a familiar sight as you tour this striking land. Rough terrain is a breeze for these sturdy animals. Riding tours are widely available and many include a dip at a natural hot spring (just the humans, not the horses).
The chance to see the Northern Lights (from around September to April) is one of the main reasons visitors journey to Iceland. You'll need clear skies, plenty of darkness (a full moon can be an impediment), and enough solar activity to catch this awesome natural phenomenon, so chances are you might be back in Iceland a second or third time before you witness the aurora. Nightly trips are available from Reykjavik. Many hotels outside of the capital offer wake-up calls and viewing platforms (or hot tubs) to make your encounter extra special.
Getting outdoors and being active is a year-round pleasure in Iceland, where magnificent landscapes appear at every turn. Not known for its mountain resorts, it is possible to ski and snowboard during winter in Iceland. You can go snowmobiling all year round; many operators run trips to the Langjokull glacier. Other glacier-based activities include hiking, climbing and visiting ice caves in winter.
Mostly running during the endless light of the summer months, kayaking is another popular day trip from Reykjavik (and other locations). Plunge a paddle into the sea, a fjord or even a glacial lagoon.
And, just to highlight how zany adventures in Iceland can be, how about snorkelling between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates? In the crystal-clear waters of the Silfra rift, in Thingvellir National Park (just 40 minutes by road from Reykjavik), you can do just that.
Beyond Blue Lagoon there are many more hot springs around Iceland, however, and they are all cheaper than Iceland’s most famous spring. Some have changing facilities and showers; some are natural springs in the midst of the stark landscape. So on subsequent visits, once the Icelandic spirit has become a part of you, get adventurous and seek out a new hot spring.
For spa-like facilities, Myvatn Natural Baths are the north's equivalent of The Blue Lagoon; Krauma Bath Resort is modern and swish (90 minutes from Reykjavik); and, close to the Golden Circle, the Secret Lagoon and Fontana Geothermal Baths both combine convenience with natural features.
While you shouldn't go hunting for hot springs in the wilds of Iceland (some of the waters are too hot and have to be manually cooled down with glacial water), you can journey to established natural springs. The Reykjadalur valley, 40 minutes by road from Reykjavik, is reached by an hour's hike. Your reward? Hot springs and mud pools, plus a warm river in which you can bathe within a valley of green hills and steam chimneys… spectacular.