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Lord of the ring road: see Iceland through the windscreen

Iceland holidays
Film-inspired holidays

A driving holiday around Iceland’s Golden Circle and south coast gives a widescreen
view of its cinematic landscape

Emma Cook

Sun 21 Jan 2018 10.00 GMT

Last modified on Sun 21 Jan 2018 12.39 GMT

People bathing in The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal bath resort in Iceland

We’ve only been on the road for 20 minutes and already the cinematic comparisons
are flowing like lava. Game of Thrones. Lord of the Rings. Spaghetti western? “No,
Narnia.” Frozen! It could be all of them, depending on where your gaze settles. One
minute it’s all glacial rivers and snow-capped mountain ranges, turn the bend and
you’re plunged into a desolate landscape of lava fields as black as coal dust;
seconds later it’s Middle-earth, with moss-green meadows and cascading waterfalls.
It’s widescreen Netflix on speed.
Iceland on film: a road trip around the 'Hollywood of the north'
Read more

“The Clangers!” my youngest says definitively, as the scenery switches suddenly to

lunar, steam belching from potholes in the ground.

It’s our first morning on the road and we’re relieved that there is really only one
we need to worry about: Route 1, an 832-mile stretch circling the island. A
reluctant driver (my husband) and an abysmal map reader (me), we were worried
before we arrived about the amount of driving. Iceland may have everything going
for it – fantastic scenery, an egalitarian society (earlier this month, it became
the first country in the world to make companies prove they are not paying women
less than men for the same work) and a highly educated population – one in 10
Icelanders is a published author, they love to say. But one regrettable oversight
is a public railway. No one is quite sure why they never got round to it – a
population slightly smaller than Croydon’s along with their harsh environment may
explain it.
Gulfoss, a waterfall in Iceland.
‘As wild and powerful as Niagara Falls’ … Gullfoss. Photograph: Alamy

We needn’t have worried. The flat landscape and wide, empty roads in this part of
southern Iceland – the Golden Circle – make it a joy to circumnavigate.

Crucially, the key to our stress-free experience arrives in the form of the digital
travel guides we are all given as part of our tour package. Each iPad has an easy-
to-use app; in one swipe I can check our daily itinerary, route and journey times –
a travelphobe’s fantasy. And there’s internet access for the kids which, it turns
out, needs to be rationed even in these photogenic surroundings. Telling my eldest
off for streaming Mad Men rather than appreciating a glacier ahead of us is a case
in point.

Another creeping anxiety whenever anyone mentions Iceland is the cost. In one of
the world’s most expensive destinations, the average bottle of wine is £35 and
lunch for a family of five could easily reach £100. Which is why I find myself
dragging a cabin case through customs bulging with bagels, triangles of processed
cheese, nuts, crisps, chocolate, and duty-free gin and tonic. Although we have to
shell out for evening meals and the odd snack, we smugly save up to £500 on eating
out this way.
Strokkur Geyser, a shoot of water rising upwards out of the ground. Iceland.
‘Every six or so minutes, the sulphurous waters rise and erupt about 20m in the
air’ … Strokkur geyser. Photograph: Alamy

Not that the prices seem a deterrent to many people. Iceland is everywhere at the
moment, popularised in film and on TV, from Game of Thrones to Black Mirror. Which
is increasingly what draws the crowds; everywhere you look, people are out with
their cameras. Our first stop is Gullfoss, one of Europe’s largest waterfalls, and
as wild and powerful as Niagara Falls. A short drive away is Strokkur, Iceland’s
best-known geyser. Every six or so minutes, the sulphurous waters (that explains
the odorous smell of eggs) rise and erupt about 20m in the air.

We find ourselves outside at 1am in pyjamas and snowsuits with other guests
staring up hopefully into the darkness

A highlight at the end of the afternoon is a visit to the Secret Lagoon in the
village of Flúðir. Surrounded by hot springs, we slowly stew in rich, inky water
that never drops below 38C, watching the steam rise and the sky ripple red, all the
more enjoyable with an Icelandic beer at the water’s edge. It’s not exactly a
secret experience but it’s well designed; even the changing rooms are artful Nordic

Steaming hot water is difficult to avoid and soon another immersion beckons, this
time in the outdoor hot tub at our hotel. Another beer, another sunset. Hotel Ranga
is a log cabin-style hotel in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it’s the remoteness that
gives it a touch of Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel; that and the endless corridors with
patterned flooring. The rooms are cosy, each with their own outdoor whirlpool bath;
a buffet breakfast is served in a glass dining room with views of Hekla volcano.
The evening meals are modern Nordic, braver carnivores can try smoked puffin and
reindeer carpaccio but there’s plenty for vegetarians too – we stick to tasty
roasted cauliflower, baked zucchini, fresh cod and cured salmon. Ranga’s welcoming
owner, Friðrik, bought the hotel 16 years ago and has doubled the number of rooms
to 52, added a star-gazing observatory with a retractable roof and, more recently,
a northern lights room alert. Which is why we find ourselves standing outside at
1am in pyjamas and snowsuits with other bleary guests staring up hopefully into the
darkness. Then it happens. The sky looks celestial, backlit by green glowing light.
It’s a subtle display, not as dramatic as I’d thought it would be, undulating
jellyfish moving behind the clouds. But it’s enough. We fall back into bed,
Vík's beach with black shingle and black rocks jutting out of the sea
‘A paradise beach in monochrome’ … Vík’s black volcanic beach. Photograph: Alamy

Next morning we’re back on Route 1, this time to Vík, a deserted village with a
stunning volcanic shoreline. It’s a paradise beach in monochrome: bright sunlight,
crashing white waves and miles of pure black sand. The joys of driving are wearing
thin so we opt for another form of transport – the Icelandic horse. We’ve seen them
all over the island and Friðrik tells us how proud Icelanders are of this pure,
diminutive breed. Although, never call them ponies, he advises sternly. Only one
type is allowed in and it’s been that way since they were bought here by Vikings
11,000 years ago. We stop at Vellir Farm, 30 minutes from Reykjavík, and spend an
enjoyable hour roaming through meadows. They’re incredibly easy for beginners and
my six-year-old adores her charge Vega. “Is it true I’ll get thrown out of Iceland
for calling her a pony?” she asks her guide, nervously.

On our final evening we can’t resist the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s famous geothermal
spa. It is undeniably commercial – tourists cluster with selfie sticks around a
floating bar – but great fun. We get there late when the temperature plunges and
beams of laser light break through the darkness. All we can see are ghostly figures
and a white fog rolling off the water. “It’s Titanic!”, says my middle child.
Iceland may not be undiscovered or even affordable, but it is a cinephile’s dream.
Way to go

Three-night fly-drive holiday with from £584, including

flights, three nights’ B&B at Hotel Ranga, car rental (additional driver free) and
iPads for use during the trip. Horse riding from £50pp and Secret Lagoon from £22pp

Iceland holidays
Film-inspired holidays

Road trips
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