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Iceland - A cool break

It took an economic crisis, a volcano and a stellar display from the heavens to make us want to visit Iceland in droves.


First came the 2007 global crash, which suddenly meant that a country once forbiddingly expensive was now more affordable (the pound buys you around three times more Icelandic krona than it did then). After this came two natural events that put it on the map; the 2010 eruption of Mount Eyjafjallajökull that grounded Europe’s airlines and drew attention to Iceland just as the Northern Lights entered their most spectacular phase for a decade.


So began a tourism boom and this year, around a million people will visit Iceland, three times the number actually living there. There’s now no shortage of UK flight options, as British Airways started to fly three times a week from Heathrow this year and Easyjet already flies from Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester and Belfast International. Icelandair and its budget rival Wow Air also serve the UK.


Many visitors get no further than Reykjavik, the dinky clapboard capital where two-thirds of Icelanders live. A weekend of partying here will suit many, particularly when recovering means languishing in some of the city’s thermal pools" Reykjavik has around 17, with entry costing £3-£4. Iceland’s most iconic thermal spring, the fabulous Blue Lagoon, lies between the city and the airport, although a dip here costs a minimum €35.


Many countries claim to be a world of difference, but Iceland really is, as a flight of only a couple of hours lands you somewhere that often resembles a different planet, something that’s apparent even on the road from the airport. This means even those just staying in Reykjavik will feel the wilderness beckon and when it does; you’ll find many of the island’s top attractions conveniently within 60 miles of the capital.


The most popular day trip, the Golden Circle route, includes the original Geysir, after which all pretenders are named and which obligingly spouts every 10 minutes or so. Another stop on this tour finds torrents of a different kind at Gullfoss, the giant waterfall that disappears into a crevice and which is humbling in its scale. Iceland excels at bringing you closer to nature and a new experience this summer is a trip to an ice cave at Langjokull, Europe’s second largest glacier located 1,200 metres above sea level. Here, an off-road truck takes you to the entrance of a network of caves and chambers cut 300 metres into the ice.


If you add in other options like sea kayaking, snowcat tours, freeriding (with skis or snowboards), wilderness fishing trips, snowshoeing and trekking across volcanoes, you’ll wonder why you ever wanted just to slouch in a bar in Reykjavik.


In the bar or not, many will peer skywards in the hope of glimpsing the Northern Lights, but expectations need to be managed here, as to be blunt, your chances aren’t high. Nature reserves its flirtatious displays for the lucky and the patient, so put this lower down your wish list. If you really are determined to see the Aurora Borealis, go during winter to maximise the darkness and be prepared to get away from the light pollution of the capital. Remember, though, that the shortness of the winter days will limit your other excursion options.


For most visitors, it’s best just to go with the flow and regard any glimpse of the Aurora as a bonus, but who knows, if the Norse gods favour, the heavens may well dance for you.