Iceland is a gift of a destination for experienced adventurers. But what everyday adventurers, and those with young children, teenagers or granny in tow? After a month touring this wild, explosive place, we’ve put together some thoughts on taking the family…
It’s raining. The sky is moody and so are the kids. Stuart is faffing around in the front of the car looking for a zoom lens. I tell him not to bother. What could there be in a car park on the ring road that would be worth capturing on camera? Maybe another waterfall? You get a bit blasé about enormous waterfalls when you’ve been here a month; there’s just so many of them. He assures me there is definitely something worth getting out of the car for. Just over the hill. I trudge up the steep muddy bank after him. What exciting attraction could possibly be up this sludgy slope that I haven’t read about in the guide book?
It fills my vision. A panorama of blue icebergs, streaked with colour and character, silently floating in a lake. And I’m not talking about a token iceberg; today I have stepped out of the Mondeo and into the ice age. A seal bobs up next to the tallest, bluest berg, creating a ripple of sound just above the water as a mist descends to muffle it. The furthest icebergs disappear, leaving us in silence. I’m choked up, unable to speak. I wander down to the edge of the lake, where smooth clear chunks of ice have been washed up. Inside them are intricate patterns and shapes; formed over hundreds of years? I run back down the slope to the car. To get the children. They can’t miss this.
Surprisingly, Jökulsárlón hasn’t been around for a thousand years, only since around 1935. But unsurprisingly, it is one of the major tourist attractions in Iceland. I had read about it in the guidebook, but assumed we’d driven past it, or that the icebergs were perhaps dependent on the seasons. In any case, I hadn’t quite envisioned the scale of it. Aside from Argentina’s Perito Moreno glacier, it’s probably one of the most spectacular sights I have ever set eyes on. And just around the corner, we discovered the tourist industry that’s built up around it. A coffee shop with room for standing only; cars parked up haphazardly in front of icebergs, people out on zodiacs and amphibious boats to get a better look. Crowds watching the seals playing about, as chunks of ice break off and flow quickly out to sea. Then further down the road, the point where the icebergs meet the ocean; waves smashing over them, sending spray flying onto the rocks.
That’s the thing about Iceland. It’s never over. The natural attractions keep coming at you until the moment you sail (or fly) away. And then they come back to you in your dreams.
Who needs TV on this island?
I can’t imagine why Icelandic people would ever bother going to the cinema. Because the drama is all around them. Entertaining the children is so easy here. You just empty them out into the outdoors. A short drive or bicycle ride will soon take you to a waterfall, river, volcano, glacier, ocean, or unidentifiable patch of something weird. Children don’t need to conquer a volcano or put a flag in an ice cap; they are happy pottering round at the edges. Lava fields are great for playing hide and seek or chipping away at strange rock formations. Flatlands devoid of grass or trees are interesting sketching projects. Rivers are perfect for stomping over wet boulders, sliding down muddy banks, making dams or having a shower.
Glaciers are ripe for crevasse making and water play. The children’s attention on the natural environment leaves us free to absorb, photograph or wonder at nature at her most creative. And sometimes we join the kids in their activities. I can never resist a game of volcanic catch.
Movie moments are delivered in many ways…
It’s cinematic here in more ways than one. There’s nothing like seeing a film of Eyjafjallajökull on a giant screen in a farm building just underneath the troublesome volcano itself. And the daughters of the farmer even sell you the tickets to watch the disaster unfold on screen. The film tells their story; from the sudden burst of fireworks to selling the ash to the tourists in an attempt to clean up afterwards. Over on the Westman Islands you can see the world’s newest island popping out of the sea in Surtsey. And in the Sea Monster Museum at Bildudalur you can see watch eye witness footage of monsters doing the same.
But then, you don’t have to go back through history for great movie moments. We were denied entry into the lava tubes in Raufarhólshellir due to Emma Watson and Russell Crowe taking up residence there to film Noah. In the highlands we passed the rock where Tom Cruise recently filmed Oblivion, and in the south we wandered around the Viking set for the next Mel Gibson film. All good fun for movie mad kids.
Keeping a lid on the budget
Before coming to Iceland we heard rumours it would break the bank, that it was ‘full’ in the summer and we’d never find accommodation unless pre-booked. That it was always raining or snowing. And that it was populated by elves and trolls. While the last part is probably true, the rest of the warnings were unfounded. We had only three days of rain. And if you choose your sleeping options wisely, Iceland is quite affordable for a family. There’s loads of sleeping bag accommodation in a vast range of hotels, hostels and houses and camping here is cheaper than the rest of Europe; partly because children are free. Eating out is affordable if you stick to the frequent petrol station grills and coffee bars, and while it isn’t gourmet food, there’s no chance of accidentally tucking into a plate of whale blubber. Or you can do what the locals do and catch your own fish for free. I hooked a mackerel at Holmavik without even trying.
The best camp showers you ever had
One of the down sides to camping for a month is camp site showers. But we never had to set foot in one, thanks to just about every village having a swimming pool or hot tub. Iceland’s geothermal heating means they are cheap and plentiful, and very different in location and character. From the luxury spa experience of the Blue Lagoon to more hidden places in sea walls, greenhouses and farmland, a swim here was always a delight. We even got to take a bath in a volcanic crater.
A constant action adventure
Unlike some countries where young children are forbidden from high adrenaline activities, Iceland’s adventure companies are more flexible about taking them on board. Children as young as ten can venture onto a glacier on crampons or a skiddoo; they can help sail a schooner and I’ll never forget the sight of Hannah clinging on to the side of a raft while hurtling down a glacial river. There’s also the joy of spotting whales, walking on high cliffs to view puffin colonies before they fly, climbing into the depths of the Atlantic Rift and viewing the bubbling, spitting, churning, steaming volatile earth at all kinds of unexpected places.
Saying goodbye is hard to do
Iceland is difficult to leave. And perhaps you never quite do. We’ve visited twice this year, and are already wondering how we can get ourselves back here. Why? Maybe it’s the intensity of the environment, scenery and weather. Maybe it’s the sense of something extraordinary happening around every corner, under ever stone and at the top of every mountain. Maybe it’s the magic pull of the elves. Maybe it’s the sense of being small, and human, and insignificant. Or maybe it’s the ice. I left Iceland a week ago and I’m still dreaming of those bergs.
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