'Kate, would you like to go snorkelling...'
'Yes! Count me in! I'm there with bells on my bikini!'
'Say what now?'
Snorkelling conjures trips to the Caribbean, coral reefs and parrot fish, not frozen tundra in the Summer, titanic glaciers and migrating Canadian geese. Still, I was intrigued, and not just by the idea of paddling in freezing water. There were three other activities scheduled for the trip (cycling, rafting and hanging out inside a volcano) too.
Oh, and there's the small fact that I'd been interested in Iceland since acing 'Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?' - a computer game invented to teach kids about geography that I played obsessively one summer when I was about eleven. Iceland's capital Reykjavík was one of the handful of destinations featured and to my young ears it sounded incredibly exotic - never mind that in my mind's ear I pronounced it Reg Kavik - making the city sound more like a second generation Croation Australian and, now that I think about it, showing some kind of undiagnosed dyslexia. This faraway-from-Sydney place would be graced with my presence one day. Fast forward more than a couple of decades and my wish was about to come true. All I had to do was bring my game face and pack my thermals. In June.
'Yikes,' I thought.
'OK,' I said.
Following a quick-as-you-like flight from London Gatwick with WOW Air (Iceland's low-cost, fun-loving airline), sustenance was required to prepare for the coming days. We headed to the renowned Mar restaurant for a lavish 200-course dinner. Prawns! Cocktails! Fish! Steak! Wine! A dessert that looked like it could double as an elfin dwelling! It's all a bit of a blur now, but if you find yourself peckish by the harbour in Reykjavík do stop in, the experience was exquisite.
After a night spent trying to sleep in broad daylight, we were picked up bright (still) and early for our first adventure: rafting on the Hvítá river. Following a drive of no more than an hour across stunning country - I'm talking fields of green grass, marbly grey skies, hirsute ponies and land ripped and scarred by trillions of years of seismic activity - we arrived under a mist of light drizzle at base camp.
Off came our clothes and on went damp full body-length wetsuits, life jackets, helmets and booties. Looking hot, with chattering teeth and eyes widened in anticipation, we boarded another bus where we were treated to gangster rap at full volume (naturally) and danced up and down the aisles in a futile effort to stay warm.
Ah warmth, what a wonderful concept, particularly as you're oaring your way through beautiful mini canyons and hanging on to a tiny rope as your hilarious local guide navigates the rolling rapids and encourages you to 'accidentally' fall into the 6ºC water in the calmer sections of the river. Yes, it was stunning and thrilling, but I was glad it only lasted and hour. The drizzle turned to rain, which turned to hail, which turned to sun and there was no way I was going to end up in the drink - let alone willingly jump off a cliff like some of my more intrepid companions. Not to worry, the sauna at base camp sorted me out just in time for my afternoon dip.
Picture this: proper rain, roadside services, a worn topographic map highlighting the intermingling of two continents (American and Eurasian), yours truly with a belly full of soup and a smile that belies my fear of once again being cold. I needn't have worried, for what to come was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.
Before entering the water, we were kitted out in dry suits, which included feet, a duvet-like onesie, a hood and gloves. The only part of your body exposed to the 2°C water was around your mouth, and trust me, once you were in, it didn't matter.
Forget scuba diving in Papua New Guinea - the water in this glacial stream (Þingvellir National Park's Silfra canyon) boasted the best underwater visibility I've ever experienced. And, while there was no obvious wildlife to speak of, the shimmering and ethereal algae that grew in fields in the shallower sections and covered the underwater cliffs, which plunged for hundreds of metres beneath us, more than made up for it.
This time around I didn't want to get out of the water, but after an hour I was coaxed back to shore and driven to the stark Ion hotel for the night. After an hour warming up in the naturally-heated outdoor mineral pool, we were treated to a dinner that included local lamb and locally brewed beer, and a well-deserved rest.
Words nor photographs can begin to describe Iceland's natural beauty, particularly when it comes to the Þingvellir National Park, and a guided cycling through the rift valley is one of the best ways to experience it - as well as to learn about some of Iceland's early history. This is a great activity to do as a family or if you're looking for something a little less physically taxing. The bikes are really comfortable and easy to ride and you're also kitted out with a helmet. We rode for 15km, with many stops along the way. If you're looking for something more challenging, however, longer routes are available.
Entering the volcano
To best honest, this was not something I'd given much thought to before the trip. In my mind's eye, I'd seen a hike up and mountain or some such, so I was in for quite a surprise. Following a 45-minute hike (see, I wasn't totally wrong) across snow-covered lava fields surrounded by awesome mountain peaks, we reached base camp mk II.
Then, harnessed up, we climbed a little further, walked across a gang plank and took a window cleaner's lift 200m to the floor of a volcano.
If you're in any way afraid of heights, think twice before embarking on this trip. If not, get yourselves booked in now. You won't be sorry.
WOW air: From now until 3 September 2013, twice-daily flights will depart London at 12:15 and 20:40 on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with a daily flight on Saturday which will depart at 12:15.
WOW air's direct route between London Gatwick and Reykjavik costs from just £69 one way, which includes taxes and hand luggage allowance (one bag measuring 56cm x 45cm x 25cm) plus handbag and duty-free shopping bag.
For more information or to book please visit www.wowair.co.uk or call 0118 321 8384.
For more information on Iceland visit: http://www.visiticeland.com/
Arctic Adventures - rafting and snorkelling:
Arctic Adventures offer snorkelling twice daily all year round and rafting on the Hvítá river twice daily from 15 May - 15 September.
For more information visit: www.bikecompany.is
Inside the Volcano:
For prices and timings of tours visit: www.insidethevolcano.com/the-tour/prices/
For more information or to book visit: www.insidethevolcano.com/
Hotel ION http://www.ioniceland.is/Images © Kate McAuley, ellithor.com, Anna Williams, Signe Ferslev
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