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Lord of the ring road: see Iceland through the windscreen

People bathing in The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal bath resort in Iceland
In hot water … the Blue Lagoon. Photograph: Alamy

We’ve only been on the road for 20 minutes and already the cinematic comparisons are flowing like lava. Game of Thrones. Lord of the Rings. Spaghetti western? “No, Narnia.” Frozen! It could be all of them, depending on where your gaze settles. One minute it’s all glacial rivers and snow-capped mountain ranges, turn the bend and you’re plunged into a desolate landscape of lava fields as black as coal dust; seconds later it’s Middle-earth, with moss-green meadows and cascading waterfalls. It’s widescreen Netflix on speed.

“The Clangers!” my youngest says definitively, as the scenery switches suddenly to lunar, steam belching from potholes in the ground.

It’s our first morning on the road and we’re relieved that there is really only one we need to worry about: Route 1, an 832-mile stretch circling the island. A reluctant driver (my husband) and an abysmal map reader (me), we were worried before we arrived about the amount of driving. Iceland may have everything going for it – fantastic scenery, an egalitarian society (earlier this month, it became the first country in the world to make companies prove they are not paying women less than men for the same work) and a highly educated population – one in 10 Icelanders is a published author, they love to say. But one regrettable oversight is a public railway. No one is quite sure why they never got round to it – a population slightly smaller than Croydon’s along with their harsh environment may explain it.

Gulfoss, a waterfall in Iceland.
‘As wild and powerful as Niagara Falls’ … Gullfoss. Photograph: Alamy

We needn’t have worried. The flat landscape and wide, empty roads in this part of southern Iceland – the Golden Circle – make it a joy to circumnavigate.

Crucially, the key to our stress-free experience arrives in the form of the digital travel guides we are all given as part of our tour package. Each iPad has an easy-to-use app; in one swipe I can check our daily itinerary, route and journey times – a travelphobe’s fantasy. And there’s internet access for the kids which, it turns out, needs to be rationed even in these photogenic surroundings. Telling my eldest off for streaming Mad Men rather than appreciating a glacier ahead of us is a case in point.

Another creeping anxiety whenever anyone mentions Iceland is the cost. In one of the world’s most expensive destinations, the average bottle of wine is £35 and lunch for a family of five could easily reach £100. Which is why I find myself dragging a cabin case through customs bulging with bagels, triangles of processed cheese, nuts, crisps, chocolate, and duty-free gin and tonic. Although we have to shell out for evening meals and the odd snack, we smugly save up to £500 on eating out this way.

Strokkur Geyser, a shoot of water rising upwards out of the ground. Iceland.
‘Every six or so minutes, the sulphurous waters rise and erupt about 20m in the air’ … Strokkur geyser. Photograph: Alamy

Not that the prices seem a deterrent to many people. Iceland is everywhere at the moment, popularised in film and on TV, from Game of Thrones to Black Mirror. Which is increasingly what draws the crowds; everywhere you look, people are out with their cameras. Our first stop is Gullfoss, one of Europe’s largest waterfalls, and as wild and powerful as Niagara Falls. A short drive away is Strokkur, Iceland’s best-known geyser. Every six or so minutes, the sulphurous waters (that explains the odorous smell of eggs) rise and erupt about 20m in the air.

A highlight at the end of the afternoon is a visit to the Secret Lagoon in the village of Flúðir. Surrounded by hot springs, we slowly stew in rich, inky water that never drops below 38C, watching the steam rise and the sky ripple red, all the more enjoyable with an Icelandic beer at the water’s edge. It’s not exactly a secret experience but it’s well designed; even the changing rooms are artful Nordic cool.

Steaming hot water is difficult to avoid and soon another immersion beckons, this time in the outdoor hot tub at our hotel. Another beer, another sunset. Hotel Ranga is a log cabin-style hotel in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it’s the remoteness that gives it a touch of Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel; that and the endless corridors with patterned flooring. The rooms are cosy, each with their own outdoor whirlpool bath; a buffet breakfast is served in a glass dining room with views of Hekla volcano.

The evening meals are modern Nordic, braver carnivores can try smoked puffin and reindeer carpaccio but there’s plenty for vegetarians too – we stick to tasty roasted cauliflower, baked zucchini, fresh cod and cured salmon. Ranga’s welcoming owner, Friðrik, bought the hotel 16 years ago and has doubled the number of rooms to 52, added a star-gazing observatory with a retractable roof and, more recently, a northern lights room alert. Which is why we find ourselves standing outside at 1am in pyjamas and snowsuits with other bleary guests staring up hopefully into the darkness. Then it happens. The sky looks celestial, backlit by green glowing light. It’s a subtle display, not as dramatic as I’d thought it would be, undulating jellyfish moving behind the clouds. But it’s enough. We fall back into bed, euphoric.

Vík's beach with black shingle and black rocks jutting out of the sea
‘A paradise beach in monochrome’ … Vík’s black volcanic beach. Photograph: Alamy

Next morning we’re back on Route 1, this time to Vík, a deserted village with a stunning volcanic shoreline. It’s a paradise beach in monochrome: bright sunlight, crashing white waves and miles of pure black sand. The joys of driving are wearing thin so we opt for another form of transport – the Icelandic horse. We’ve seen them all over the island and Friðrik tells us how proud Icelanders are of this pure, diminutive breed. Although, never call them ponies, he advises sternly. Only one type is allowed in and it’s been that way since they were bought here by Vikings 11,000 years ago. We stop at Vellir Farm, 30 minutes from Reykjavík, and spend an enjoyable hour roaming through meadows. They’re incredibly easy for beginners and my six-year-old adores her charge Vega. “Is it true I’ll get thrown out of Iceland for calling her a pony?” she asks her guide, nervously.

On our final evening we can’t resist the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s famous geothermal spa. It is undeniably commercial – tourists cluster with selfie sticks around a floating bar – but great fun. We get there late when the temperature plunges and beams of laser light break through the darkness. All we can see are ghostly figures and a white fog rolling off the water. “It’s Titanic!”, says my middle child. Iceland may not be undiscovered or even affordable, but it is a cinephile’s dream.

Way to go

Three-night fly-drive holiday with discover-the-world.co.uk from £584, including flights, three nights’ B&B at Hotel Ranga, car rental (additional driver free) and iPads for use during the trip. Horse riding from £50pp and Secret Lagoon from £22pp

This article titled "Lord of the ring road: see Iceland through the windscreen" was written by Emma Cook, for The Observer on Sunday 21 January 2018 10.00am

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