A Perfect Family Destination
by Caroline Wissing
When my family and I were considering Iceland for a holiday, many of our friends asked us why Iceland? Well, why not Iceland?
It turns out Iceland was one of the best vacations we’ve taken as a family.
We booked our dates and ights months ahead, but I procrastinated in mak- ing arrangements for our accommodations until everything from condos to hotel rooms was already reserved. But I’m glad I did because instead I explored an online lodging site and found a homestay apartment to rent. Our four- bedroom at was spacious, beautifully decorated, and close to the centre of Reykjavik, Iceland’s only city.
Renting a car is the way to go in this vast country where each small community is miles from its nearest neighbour. Driving through Iceland’s lava fields made us feel like we’d landed on the moon. The lava fields, which consist of broken black rocks covered in springy moss, were formed by Iceland’s 130 active and extinct volcanic mountains. Thousands of Icelandic sheep dot this vast landscape, roaming freely without fences. If you drive north from Reykjavik to Snæfellsnes peninsula, you can view breathtaking fjords and visit the towns and roads where they filmed the Hollywood comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller.
Iceland’s most famous volcano, Eyja allajökull, erupted in 2010, spewing ash and forcing the closure of the airspace over much of Europe, grounding airplanes, stranding travelers and tongue-tying news reporters. The volcano’s name shows how impossible the Icelandic language is to pronounce. Even the voice of our baffled GPS gave up at one point and simply spelled out some of the most challenging Icelandic street names.
After we’d explored a bit by car, one of our first pre-booked activities was horseback riding. Icelandic horses are renowned for their strength and beauty, as well as their easy-going nature. I’m the only family member with riding experience, but my husband and the kids quickly picked up the rhythm. Our horses were patient with us and we enjoyed touring the beautiful countryside on horseback. After a light lunch, a guide then took us on a hike to a natural hot spring. We slipped into our bathing suits and lounged in a slim winding river with clear, steaming water the temperature of a hot bath.
The island is a hotspot for geological activity; its earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have resulted in beautiful waterfalls, caves, craters and geysers. Water boils under the ground and gases escape constantly through vents in the earth’s surface. On another day trip, a driving tour called the Golden Circle, we walked through a geothermal park where clay-coloured mud bubbled with hot gas. Even though my son, Cameron, found it fascinating, he wasn’t a fan of the strong rotten-egg odour of sulphur.
My animal-loving daughter, Jenna, was most excited at the prospect of seeing puffins. We drove to the coast in the hope of spotting one of these sweetly comical creatures. Luckily, hundreds of puffins were hanging out on the rocks mere feet from where we stood on a cliff’s edge. We watched them flying, landing, waddling and stumbling — frankly, they’re a little clumsy. We were fortunate to be visiting Iceland in late July after the puffin nesting season (when visitors are prevented from disturbing them) but before they leave on their annual migration to Ireland and Atlantic Canada.
A highlight for us all was a hike along the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. We strapped crampons onto our hiking boots (ice is slippery!), got an ice axe each, and followed our knowledgeable guide, Roger. A guide is essential when hiking the glaciers because the ice is constantly shifting and cracking. But Roger knew and respected the secrets of the ice and returned us to dry land safe and sound.
After all that physical activity, I was glad to have booked us in for a day at the Blue Lagoon Spa, just outside Reykjavik. This man-made geothermal spa is popular and you need to make sure you book ahead, especially if you have a particular date or time in mind. We spent hours in the turquoise, mineral-rich water, relaxing with a drink in hand (fruit smoothies for the kids). Depending on your package, you might also apply facial masks of silica mud and algae that make your skin sing. And at the end of our spa day, we stepped into the onsite LAVA restaurant and enjoyed a delicious meal looking out across the lagoon.
Reykjavik is a beautiful port city and worth at least a day’s visit. The harbourfront welcomes you with a paved walking path that snakes from one end to the other. Harpa, an imposing glass and steel concert hall, is quickly becoming an iconic symbol of Iceland’s progress and strength.
Shopping and museums abound. We checked out the many shops selling sweaters made from cozy Icelandic wool, had a fish lunch on the harbor, and toured a few museums. There are many fine art galleries and cultural and historical museums in and around Reykjavik. My son has a particular interest in history and folklore, and his favourite was the Saga Museum. Dioramas of life-sized wax figures depict significant events in Icelandic history while an audio tour dramatizes each event. At the end of the tour, you can dress up in traditional Icelandic clothing, including realistic weaponry, and take photos.
We also enjoyed the oddity of the midnight sun phenomenon. At 11 o’clock at night, the sky still held a bit of brightness and we had to close our blinds as well as our eyes to make sure we got enough sleep. By contrast, I imagine only three hours of daylight in midwinter would be a difficult adjustment.
We ran out of time well before we ran out of things to do and we can’t wait for a return trip to Iceland.