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Escape from the Blue Lagoon: Iceland, beyond Reykjavik

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6/12/2016 Jane Dunford
Road near Húsafell, Iceland: Highway to heaven … approaching Húsafell, Iceland. © Getty Images Highway to heaven … approaching Húsafell, Iceland.

Dressed in traditional Icelandic jumper and matching hat, artist/musician Páll Guðmundsson is playing a xylophone made from flat stones he’s collected from the mountains. His turf-roofed studio looks like a Hobbit home, and he shows us rock sculptures, sketches and prints made by painting on blocks of ice (there’s one of Björk, obviously).

Páll grew up here, in the tiny settlement of Húsafell, west Iceland, and was inspired as a child by the artists who came to paint each summer. The landscape they captured is enchanting: a ring of dramatic mountains and rugged lava fields, with glaciers on the horizon, today wreathed in clouds. It’s October, low season, and with few people around, the sense of untamed nature is palpable.

Páll Guðmundsson’s turf-roofed studio. Photograph: Roger Duckitt

Iceland’s tourist industry has been in the spotlight recently as visitor numbers have rocketed (an estimated 1.5 million this year compared with 459,000 in 2010 – the country’s population is only 350,000). The 2008 crash made a once-expensive country seem affordable, and the 2010 volcanic eruption reminded the world of its wild beauty, as did a spate of films and TV series shot there, such as Game of Thrones. Visitor interest was piqued, and a boom in cheap flights followed.

Some say the island and its natural sites are struggling to cope, with the centre of Reykjavik recently likened to Disneyland by the leader of the anti-establishment Pirate Party. Indeed, everywhere you look in the capital there’s a hotel being built. The mother of an Icelandic friend tells me some of her favourite beauty spots are now regularly rammed with tourists. “It’s OK though,” she says. “I know other places close by that are still secret.”

But while most tourists stay in Reykjavik and make day trips to the Golden Circle sites, much of the rest of the country remains little explored. “It’s important to direct people away from places that have become overcrowded,” says Clive Stacey, managing director of Discover the World, one of the biggest UK operators to the country. “There’s a question of infrastructure, but where possible, we encourage people to limit time in Reykjavik and stay in some of the less-visited parts. There’s so much to see.”

Húsafell is almost 80 miles from the capital, and a new hotel and new ways of accessing some of the area’s key natural attractions have added to its appeal. The drive out of town is hairy – a storm sweeps in, wind batters the car and whips the sea into a frenzy as we follow the coast north. (An iPad from Discover the World, pre-loaded with maps and suggestions for alternative sightseeing is a boon.) Dark mountains loom, then morph into bizarre jagged rocks, covered with fluorescent green moss; the roads are eerily empty. The Húsafell Hotel appears around a bend, all steel, glass and stone. “It’s like a Bond lair,” says my boyfriend.

The northern lights flicker above Hotel Husafell.

Opened last year next to a campsite long popular with Icelanders, it’s sleek, modern and angular, but somehow a match for the wild scenery. Braving the rain, we go straight for a soak in the on-site geothermal pools. (In a new float experience, visitors use a special headdress and flotation aids around the legs to lie back for some supported relaxation.) The 48 rooms are cosy, with lots of wood and neutral colours, and paintings by Páll on the walls.

Húsafell may be tiny but, like most of Iceland, it’s bursting with folklore and legend. An 18th-century priest, Snorri Björnsson, is its most revered son (the hotel owner is a descendant) and we follow a historic route past the church and the spot where Snorri is said to have sent 18 ghosts back to the underworld (marked with sculptures by Páll) up into the hills to a waterfall, heading back to the hotel as another storm threatens.

The sky’s clear when we wake the next day and we drive across a surreal landscape of rugged hills, valleys, lava plains and angry white rivers to Víðgelmir. Here, formed more than 1,100 years ago as molten lava flowed and cooled on the outside, is one of the biggest lava caves in the world. New walkways opened in May mean visitors can now explore more easily; those with more time can take a long tour and scramble even further over boulders into hidden depths. Our guide, Siggi, talks about the outlaws who once hid here and explains the bizarre rock formations. When we turn our headtorches off, the darkness is total.

Another attraction not far from the hotel is Langjökull, Europe’s second-largest glacier. It’s a winter sports playground (snow hiking and superjeep safaris), but Into the Glacier, which opened last year, is a massive manmade tunnel and series of ice caves which allow visitors to experience it from the inside. Sadly, high winds mean our trip here is cancelled, so instead we visit Hraunfossar waterfalls, which cascade over the edge of a lava field, and check out Deildartunguhver, Europe’s most powerful hot spring, with boiling water – used for central heating in towns 70km away – flowing at 180 litres a second. Next spring, a new spa, the Krauma Geothermal baths, will open here; using the naturally heated water, it will be a great alternative to the often booked-up Blue Lagoon.

Sunset at Hraunfossar waterfalls, or 'lava falls'. © Jorunn Sjofn/REX Shutterstock Sunset at Hraunfossar waterfalls, or 'lava falls'. Back at the hotel, the dining room has floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the Borgarfjörður valley – well-sited for the northern lights if they play ball. Young chef Thorður Thrastarson’s menu is creative and beautifully presented, from the blackened cod on parsnips three ways to the chocolate lava cake with salted caramel. Be warned – the weakening pound and strengthening krona mean eating out in Iceland is expensive. Mains start at £30, the five-course tasting menu is £80 – and this is not considered pricey. A bistro next door has buffet lunches for £19 and burgers for £7, but it’s only open in the evening in the summer – and there are no other dinner options for miles. But remoteness often comes at a price.

While tourist crowds throng the streets of the capital, you don’t have to venture far to leave them behind, and Húsafell is a good place for a smorgasbord of Icelandic delights. Next year, a gallery showing Páll’s work will open (he’ll play concerts, too, on his homemade instruments; he’s appeared at London’s Barbican with Sigur Rós). The corrugated iron building is in place already, towed in overnight from a town an hour away. A headstone museum is planned – the residents of Húsafell were famed for their tombstone carving skills.

This is Iceland in its full, beautiful, idiosyncratic glory.

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