There's more to a holiday in Iceland than the Northern Lights.
For a start, the island's out-of-this-world landscapes of glaciers, lava fields, mountains and volcanoes. Then there's capital Reykjavik where the locals know how to light up a long night. You don't need clear skies for a amazing holiday in Iceland. David Walsh picks his Iceland must-sees and dos.
The most recognisable and enduring image of Iceland, the Blue Lagoon should be on the bucket list of anyone on a break in Europe's most northerly capital. Said to cure any skin ailment, the lagoon on Reykjanes peninsula was created when heated seawater from a nearby geothermal power plant flowed into a lava field. Now a spa, there are various packages on offer combining entry and scrub masks, or opt just for the basic entry fee and relax in the 37-degree powder blue water with silica mud for your face and skin. There's also a sauna and steam room to further help with your detox.
Further afield to the south-east, Landmannalaugar is a hot springs area connected by buses from Reykjavik in the summer. Set in a wild, glacial valley sculpted by Iceland's second-most active volcano, Hekla, you'll be able to wade through the stream until you find a warm spot to go for a soak.
The Golden Circle
Whether you opt for taking an organised tour or getting the testosterone flowing behind the wheel of a 4x4, the Golden Circle encapsulates the beauty of Iceland's vast lunar landscapes in an afternoon's drive. Around 90 minutes from Reykjavik lies Geysir, the original water spout that gave it's name to all others. Geysir is not as active as it once was but often more reliable for some action is Strokkur nearby, which erupts every few minutes or so. Patience is a virtue, even in the biting cold, but you'll often be well-rewarded for the wait.
Very nearly destroyed by a project to build a dam, Gulfoss is a roaring two-tiered waterfall plunging into a deep canyon further along the route. Whether partially frozen in winter or gushing in spring and summer, it's a stunning sight in all seasons. Though it's safer to view from the platform at the top, there is a path down to the water's edge (blocked off in winter due to ice and still slippery in summer) for a more daredevil, spray-drenching experience.
In winter, there's roughly four hours of daylight. In the summertime, the sun barely dips below the horizon. Either way, it's an excuse for Icelanders to affirm their reputation as party animals. One third of the 300,000-strong population lives in the Reykjavik area so that's where you'll find the pulse of the country's nightlife. Most of the city's bars and nightspots line Laugavegur, a long street near the waterfront. It used to be the road which would take the women of Reykjavik to hot springs to do their washing but nowadays, if you find yourself here on a Friday or Saturday night, you're more likely to run into locals on the rúntur, or round tour, a mass bar crawl from midnight to 4am.
Icelandic for gold, Gull beer is exactly what it says on the tin. Made with some of the world's purest water, filtered through volcanic rock, Gull features heavily on the rúntur. Beer is the drink of choice for most Icelanders since the collapse of the economy back in 2008. It's available on draught in most places but if you're self-catering, you can buy boxes of Gull (as well as other beers, spirits and wines) at Vínbúðin, state-owned monopolies which have strict opening hours. If vodka is more your tipple, Lebowskis Bar on Laugavegur specialises in a mean White Russian. A hat tip to the Coen Brothers' cult film, it also does an incredible sirloin beef burger - great with a pint of Gull.