Siobhán Cronin is a major fan of our most northerly neighbour, and thrilled to discover that, with flights starting from Cork today, access to her favourite holiday destination is right on our doorstep
MY love affair with Iceland began in the 90s. Searching for something a bit different, but not too far away, myself and my adventurous buddy set our sights on what was becoming a very quirky weekend destination – Reykjavik.
In the days before the Irish boom of the noughties, and definitely before Iceland’s own ‘tiger’ roared, plane loads of these fascinating creatures were landing in Dublin.
Word had spread up north that our pre-Tiger capital had great shopping advantages – it was under two-and-a-half hours by plane, and the likes of Brown Thomas and Arnotts appeared able to match much of what was on offer in London and further afield.
The planes were coming south, packed with shoppers who tended to make a weekend of it, so the flights were initially returning to Iceland relatively empty – until some savvy travel agents here spotted an opportunity.
And so the great exodus north began – as did my obsession with the most westerly Nordic country.
In the early days, Reykjavik was still getting used to its reputation as Europe’s ‘coolest capital’ and it struggled a little with my vegetarianism and my light wallet.
We giggled at paying the equivalent of a week’s wages for a fancy meal out, and on one occasion had to resort to the local McDonald’s to fully satisfy our hunger, not being used to the more modest appetites of our northern cousins. We giggled like toddlers when ordering a McFluffy for our dessert, as the waitress asked which flavour we preferred – ‘a Smurtie, perhaps?’ – in her gorgeous Icelandic accent.
But that was then, and this is … well this is the month that flights to Iceland are right on our doorstep. Today, Cork Airport will welcome the low-fares carrier Wow, bringing passengers to the ‘land of ice and fire’ four times a week.
So, what has this unique country to offer the Irish tourist? Of course, the home of Bjork, Sigur Ros and Magnus Magnusson, is also home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
The country is famous for views of the Northern Lights, but they are a mostly wintertime phenomenon, so they won’t be reappearing until at least late August. Meanwhile, you might catch the glorious midnight sun instead, depending on when you choose to travel. Due to its location right where the Eurasian and North American plates meet, Iceland boasts a huge amount of volcanic activity – in fact, this is one of the few places where a rift in the plates is easily visible.
I have walked a bridge across this fault many times – at the Thingvellir national park – which is also home to the oldest parliament in the world, believed to date from 930.
Thingvellir is part of the ‘holy trinity’ of Iceland tourism hotspots. Many tour companies offer the ‘Golden Circle’ tour – stopping at the national park, then moving on to the stunning Gulfoss waterfall, Europe’s largest, and rounding off the trip with a visit to the famous Geysir fields – where steam gushes into the air at irregular intervals in the Haukadalur valley, creating wonderful selfie opportunites in a bizarre waiting game where only the most patient visitors are rewarded.
Although Iceland has built much of its tourism around its winter landscape (think the Sky Atlantic thriller Fortitude or James Bond movie Die Another Day, the summer has plenty to offer, too.
Hills that were white and inaccessible are now green and lush, and the volcanoes, geysirs and spas are still a huge draw.
Another big attraction – winter or summer – is the incredibly weird experience of the Blue Lagoon spa. This goethermal man-made lake was initially a spin-off of the nearby power station, set in a lava field, taking its water from the hot springs which also powered the electricity station.
In more recent years, the lake was moved further away from the station to allow space for a purpose-built spa and skincare clinic. There is even a hotel here now, which is mostly used by people seeking a more intense treatment for skin irritations, using the medicinal mud from the lava fields.
For most tourists, a day trip to the Blue Lagoon is more than sufficient to get the experience. Ramble around the modern facility built into the rockface, take a dip in the naturally warm water, (which varies from warm to near-boiling!) while sipping on a beer from the bar in the centre of the lake, or relax in one of the saunas or steam rooms.
Mud bars are dotted along the edge of the lagoon, and visitors are encouraged to give themselves a mud mask as they lounge about in the sensual and therapeutic waters. Day tickets range from about €60 per person, dependent on the time of day or the addition of lunch, complimentary drink, etc. But this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, unlikely to be repeated unless you make Reykjavik a regular destination.
Many tourists baulk at the commercialism of the lagoon, which was originally a well-kept secret by the locals, but is now a major industry. So if you’d prefer something a little more low-key, you can also check out some of the lesser-known hot spring spas, which are dotted around the coast.
One we loved was the Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal baths, on the Golden Circle outside Reykjavik, where the trip included a demonstration of how local people used to bake their traditional rye bread in the hot soil!
There’s definitely something a little bit different about every trip through Iceland.
And speaking of a little bit different, my top recommendation for a day out would be the Superjeep.is safari across the real ‘wild’ Iceland – traversing rivers, valleys and even glaciers, with highly experienced tour guides, whose command of English – and sometimes even Irish! – is a wonderful testament to this country’s eagerness to embrace tourism – an industry that is relatively in its infancy here.
We Irish could learn a lot from our northern cousins.
• For accommodation, there are many varieties of hostel, Airbnb options, and deals with established hotels like the Reykjavik Natura, Radisson Blu Saga, or the more upmarket art deco delight of the Hotel Borg in the city centre or the ultra-trendy Hotel Reykjavik Marina. Food-wise, you’ll be tempted by a hugely fashionable gourmet revolution taking place here, but we always find ourselves spending at least one evening enjoying the comfort food at Icelandic Fish & Chips, or Tapas Barinn. For a special treat (bring your credit card) there’s the incredibly cool Grillmarket (‘Grillmarkadurinn’) in town or trendy Mar Restaurant near the harbour.
• Flights to Iceland from Cork with Wow Air begin today and the airline will operate direct scheduled flights to Reykjavik from Cork four times per week on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. The new flights from Cork will also open up Wow air’s transatlantic routes, via Reykjavik, to Irish travellers wishing to travel to several US and Canadian destinations. See panel below for more details.
Wow will connect to US and Canada
In 2015, Wow air became the first low-cost airline to offer transatlantic services from Dublin, with a short layover in Reykjavik and now Cork passengers can avail of this too.
The airline recently announced their expansion to Chicago following the successful launch of transatlantic services from Dublin, via Reykjavik, to Boston, Washington DC, Montréal and Toronto in 2015, and to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York in 2016 and Miami and Pittsburgh in 2017.
Announcing the new Cork route, Skúli Mogensen, founder and CEO of Wow air, said: ‘We are delighted to announce the addition of the Cork route to our network. We made the decision to operate a service from Cork to Iceland off the success of the Dublin route. Iceland is proving hugely popular amongst the Irish travellers and we are delighted to be able to make Iceland accessible and affordable for Irish travellers. We are confident that this new route will further contribute to the success of Wow air’s Irish network.’
Wow air became the first airline to operate direct scheduled flights between Ireland and Iceland when it began operating a service to Reykjavik from Dublin in June 2015.
Founded in November 2011 by Icelandic entrepreneur Skúli Mogensen, Wow air’s annual passenger capacity will more than double in 2016 to over 1.8 million, up from approximately 840,000 in 2015.
The Cork route will use A320/A321 aircraft. See www.wowair.ie for more.