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Iceland's landscapes are made for hiking, wild swimming & horse riding—here's how to make the most of your time on the moody island

With the news that Iceland is welcoming UK, US and EU travellers who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 - without the need to quarantine - it seems it's the perfect place for that first post-lockdown escape. When I first landed in Iceland I was instantly mesmerised by the otherworldly landscapes. As the most sparsely populated country in Europe, Iceland is filled with enough empty space to make you feel like you have the entire island to yourself and scattered with around 130 volcanoes and an abundance of waterfalls, plus mysterious black sand beaches, lagoons, glaciers and lava fields, the place really is like arriving in a long lost dream world. 

Tiny white church with red spire on a hill in iceland
Iceland's landscapes feel like they're straight out of a Roald Dahl novel

Fresh air and nature are the perfect tonic to wistful moods, lockdown fatigue and work burnout. For my visit I hired a car and booked a cosy and warm apartment just outside of Reykjavik on Airbnb. Sugrún and Hallur’s apartment is a Scandi cool place with two bedrooms, free parking and a hot tub, from £88 a night. Like most places in Iceland, water used for showering or bathing is heated geothermally so has a sulphurous smell, but is perfectly clean and always steaming hot, which is so needed after a day out in the cold, (Icelandic winters can drop to -10). 

In the south of the island Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon is the best place to stay for other-worldly scenery, rooms here start at £167 a night with stunning glacier or sea views. Splitting your time between two or three locations is a great way to see Iceland’s best parts, without wasting too much time driving.

There’s an astonishing 269 glaciers scattered throughout the country, meaning 11% of Iceland is covered by some form of glacier. Yet if global warming continues at its current rate, they could be gone in as little as 150 years, a sobering thought that makes you realise how frail our planet is when not cared for. I decided to pick an eco-friendly company, Go West, to hike Snaefellsjokull, a glacier that, incredibly, sits on top of a dormant volcano. 

I’m not usually a fan of group tours, often happiest discovering new places alone or with my close circle of friends, but hiking a glacier with no guidance is not the best idea, especially if you don’t own the equipment. Go West kit you out with a climbing harness, crampons, hiking sticks and ice axe for the seven to ten hour round trip that takes you all the way to the 1446 meter summit. 

The trek, of course, is beautiful, surrounded by a blanket of bright white snow, our guide John told fascinating stories about the history of Iceland, his passion for the country making the trip all the more special. Once you reach the top it’s hard not to be humbled by nature and be hit with a real sense of self-fulfilment.

steaming water and mountains in iceland
Naturally heated hot pools

The endless properties of water are widely known, from the art of ancient Roman bathing to the rise in popularity of floatation tanks that can help to lower cortisol levels and alleviate stress, water therapy has never been more in fashion. Of course Icelanders, with their unique source of natural hot water are no strangers to its positive benefits, bathing and swimming is a way of life for many people, as well as a place to socialise after a day at work. 

Eager to soothe my mind and body and avoid the crowds I hunted out The Secret Lagoon in Fludir, built in 1891 it was Iceland’s very first swimming pool and is heated up to 39 degrees by natural hot springs. Sitting in the hot water with steam dancing up into the cool Icelandic air is so calming and the rural setting of Fludir conjures up images of elves and trolls. 

rainbow over small house in icelands countryside
Catch a rainbow on horseback

Another way to experience Iceland’s whimsical rock formations, incredible waterfalls and endless rainbows is by horseback. Icelandic horses are a unique breed that came to the country with the first settlers back in 1874 AD, now they’re one of the purest breeds in the world with a thick winter coat and sturdy frame that’s ideal for exploring, plus they’re also very pretty. 

I took an evening riding tour with Islenski Hesturinn, they have well looked after horses and great guides, including Begga who is hilarious and a great teacher, making even first time riders feel confident. Our group trekked over lava fields and past volcanic craters that at times felt like we were on the another planet, but the highlight was the ending when the distant sun began to set, turning the fresh snow a faint shade of lilac, it wasn’t the Northern Lights but it felt pretty special. 

That’s the thing about Iceland, a week of outdoor activities in a country filled with volcanic energy, surrounded by nature has the power to uplift and rejuvenate anyone.

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