22 April 2024

See the amazing Aurora Borealis in Iceland
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he scream is shrill and unexpected. It echoes across the almost empty restaurant, making the waiter jump. I drop a forkful of Arctic char into my lap. A young woman rushes to the windows, presses her face against the glass and stares into the darkness beyond. The Icelandic sky is alive. Ignoring the sub-zero temperatures, we sprint outside and stand in ankledeep snow watching the emerald bands of the Northern Lights swirl. A honeymooning couple embrace each other tightly, tears staining their cheeks. 'This is a dream come true,' says the new bride. I know what she means. The spectacle playing out in the skies over Ion - a remote and luxurious hotel deep in the Icelandic wilderness - is a wonder.
Take a dip in the famous Blue Lagoon
Iceland's most iconic natural attraction, the Strokkur Geyser
And it isn't the only reason to visit this enthralling part of the world. I am on a self-drive along Iceland's Golden Circle trail, which takes in a number of sights just outside Reykjavik. Most visitors tick off Iceland's waterfalls, tectonic plates and spouting geysers on an organised tour - but there's another way. After two busy days in the capital - feasting on puffin at cosy restaurant Prir Frakkar and sipping brennivín (a local schnapps made from fermented potatoes) at Boston, Bjork's favourite bar - the open road beckons.

And they don't get much more open than Iceland's Highway 35. It's possible to do the whole 170-mile Golden Circle circuit in four hours, but what's the rush? Poring over a map, I plot my route in the reverse order to the one that the coach tours take. The city fades away, vanishing into the rear view mirror replaced with green valleys and brown mountains. I pull over beside a farm and the Icelandic horses take a break from grazing to wander over and say hello.
A big draw on the Golden Circle tour is the volcanic crater Kerid, the last stop on the normal coach tour, but the first one doing it the opposite way. The crater was formed when a large magma chamber collapsed.

The piercing blue colour of the water surrounded by the red lava rocks is a breathtaking contrast of nature. Gullfoss Waterfall, the next destination, is quiet.

The day trippers from Reykjavik are yet to arrive, so we take the trail down to the gentle Hvítá River and watch it pick up ferocity as it plummets over the 70ft drop, cascading with a thunderous roar down two levels into a narrow canyon.
"Aur dinner is interrupted by the appearance of the aurora borealis."
Manmade ice caves allow you to wander deep inside the Langjökull glacier
Gullfoss waterfall thunders into a narrow canyon
A friendly troll marks the route of the Golden Circle
A thrilling afternoon follows: criss-crossing the Langjokull glacier on a snowmobile, at high speed - Beyonce and Jay-Z did the same shortly afterwards - and onwards to another of the Golden Circle's main spots, the Strokkur Geyser. This is Iceland's most iconic natural attraction. We smell the geyser long before we see it; a stench of sulphur among the steaming geothermal pools.

A crowd gathers for the next performance, which takes place roughly every ten minutes. Eventually, the earth shakes slightly and the piping-hot puddle bubbles before surging skywards 100ft into the air. With the late afternoon light beginning to soften, we head for Ion Hotel, superbly located near Thingvellir National Park, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates collided. Having met, the plates pulled apart, forming a rift valley on the shores of Iceland's biggest natural lake, Thingvallavatn. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and also stood in for Westeros in scenes from Game Of Thrones. The Icelandic Parliament, Althing, was established at Thingvellir in 930, and remained there until 1798.

It is the world's oldest parliament and the national park ('the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation, never to be sold or mortgaged') was established in 1930 to mark the parliament's 1,000th anniversary. The Ion hotel, with 45 rooms, has a bizarre industrial-style appearance and has a power plant next door. But don't be put off, you barely notice it - and inside all is luxury. The hotel is raised on stilts and decked out with driftwood and exposed concrete, and has the surrounding mountains, lakes and meadows to itself. It describes itself as a luxury adventure hotel and many guests use it as a base for treks across the glacier or for days of fly-fishing in icy rivers.

It is a serial winner of awards for design and sustainability. After our dinner is interrupted by the appearance of the aurora borealis, we get in our bathing suits and out to the plunge pool, where the nocturnal performance shows no sign of a curtain call. We wallow in the warm waters, sipping cocktails under a night sky heaving with stars and the speckled bands of the aurora.

Original article published in Aug 2016. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
The aurora borealis entrances Nick Boulos in the wilds of Iceland - not to mention the planet's most iconic geyser and puffin for dinner (optional)
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